Sunday, December 20, 2009

Another take on the U. of California fee increases

I published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle today, outlining why the fee increases imposed by the UC regents was the right decision.  The op-ed was based on my earlier blog post on the topic.  There was an opposing piece written by the former admissions director at UC Berkeley, as well as two other op-eds. You can see all of them in the Chronicle's Sunday Insight section.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I weigh in on the Pittsburgh tuition tax proposal

Story on the local CBS affiliate this evening: "Tuition Tax in State College?". If you have trouble with the video player, you can read a transcript here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sallie Mae's hypocrisy

The Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of weeks ago had an article (sorry, but you have to be a Chronicle subscriber to access the full article on-line) about a grass roots campaign being conducted by our friends at Sallie Mae.  Turns out that they had a little problem with part of SAFRA, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act passed by the House earlier this fall and waiting now to be taken up by the Senate.  Which part of the legislation did they not like?  The part that, in the words of the House Education and Labor Committee:
Converts all new federal student lending to the stable, effective and cost-efficient Direct Loan program. Beginning July 1, 2010, all new federal student loans will be originated through the Direct Loan program, instead of through lenders subsidized by taxpayers in the federally-guaranteed student loan program.
Not surprising that Sallie Mae didn't agree with this provision, since a good portion of its business comes from originating federally-guaranteed student loans.

So according to the Chronicle article, the leadership of Sallie Mae went out and exhorted their workers to collect signatures on petitions to be sent to Congress, asking them not to shut down the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program.  Now we could all have a long and engaging debate about FFEL versus Direct Loans, but that's a discussion to be had another day.  The point here is to discuss Al Lord, Sallie Mae's CEO, and yes, the same Al Lord who earned $225 million from 1999 through 2004.  That's an average of $45 million per year for those of you who are too lazy or unable to do the math.  I should note here that Al Lord is an alumnus of Penn State, has received numerous awards from the university, and has also been a generous donor with some of the money he's earned from Sallie Mae.

The article describes how Lord attended a rally held in Fishers, Indiana, home of a Sallie Mae facility with 1,600 employees, including 100 loan originators whose jobs are on the line if the Senate passes its version of SAFRA.  At the rally, Lord was quoted as saying, "There's Washington, and then there's the rest of the country.  This is the rest of the country."

The implication here is that the big, bad Congress represents Washington, and scrappy, fighting Sallie Mae represents the "rest of the country."  But Sallie Mae is as ingrained in Washington as almost any entity in America.  It started out as a federally-chartered enterprise with the mission of originating and servicing student loans.  In the 1990s, it began conversion to a private corporation, and has since grown to be one of the country's largest financial services companies, listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Sallie Mae is also one of the biggest lobbyists and contributors to Congressional campaigns in the financial aid industry in Washington.  A few quotes about its lobbying activities:
"Sallie Mae spent $3.4 million lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also showered campaign contributions on individual members of Congress, including $26,150 for Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Financial Services Commitee and a key Democratic ally, and $10,000 on moderate 'Blue Dog' Democrats" (Chronicle, 7/30/09).
"Sallie Mae has always been generous to the lawmakers it supports. In the current election cycle, from January 1999 through the end of July, Sallie Mae's PAC has contributed $145,100 to Republican Congressional candidates and $98,093 to Democrats. In contributing to Congressional leaders, Sallie Mae is bipartisan. For example, while Sallie Mae provided $6,500 to the G.O.P. House leadership, it has given $11,000 to the chamber's Democratic leaders" (Chronicle, 8/11/00).
"Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student-loan company, spent $2-million on lobbying in the first half of this year" (Chronicle, 7/30/09).
"Sallie Mae spent $2.3 million in the first half of 2007 to lobby Congress, the White House, the Education Department, and the Government Accountability Office, according to a disclosure form filed with the Senates public records office" (New America Foundation, Higher Ed Watch, 11/30/07)
"Banks and other entities in the student-loan industry reported spending about $5.7 million [in 2005], led by Sallie Mae’s $1.46 million" (Inside Higher Ed, 12/21/06).
So for Al Lord to imply that Sallie Mae is "the rest of the country" is just a bit facetious.  Sallie Mae is as intertwined with Washington as is the United States Congress.  It has every right to lobby to protect its interests, but it shouldn't be hypocritical in doing so.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Radio show on paying for higher education

I was a guest this morning, along with the president of Shippensburg University, on "Radio Smart Talk" on WITF, the public radio station in Harrisburg.  Here's a description of the show from the WITF website:

Pennsylvania's four state-related universities -- Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln -- are still awaiting almost $700 million in funding from the state.  That money is being held up by the legislature who has yet to put the final touches on the state budget...The broader conversation is how Pennsylvania state-related and state owned universities are funded to begin with.  Tuitions are higher at Pennsylvania's public colleges than in most states and the universities say that's because the state provides a smaller level of funding.  In fact, the College Board said last month that Pennsylvania's four-year public universities are the fourth most expensive for tuition and fees in the country.  Should the state be providing more funding or do the universities have to find ways to more drastically cut costs?
 Here's a link to a stream of the show.

Friday, November 20, 2009

University of California Regents raise tuition 32 percent - great idea!

Note: See this later blog post for more on this issue, including an op-ed I published in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The media are alive with coverage of the Cal Regents' decision yesterday to raise fees (what the rest of us call tuition) 32 percent for next fall (including a 15 percent mid-year increase for the spring semester).  The Chronicle of Higher Education had some good video of the protests at the Regents meeting, though regrettably the video doesn't show any actually Tasering taking place even though the narration makes reference to it.

If my calculations are right, this means that fees next year will be in the ballpart of $12,560 for resident undergraduate students, certainly a large dollar and percentage increase over what students are paying this year.  But where does this place UC compared to other public universities?  Each year, the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board produces an excellent report summarizing tuition and fee rates at public universities in every state.  The most recent report is for last year, and shows that Berkeley's rate of $8,932 was 12th highest in the nation for public flagship universities - but still $4,774 or 34 percent below the most expensive public university in the nation, a distinction held by my own institution, Penn State - University Park.  Other flagships have not yet announced their increases for next year, but Berkeley will by no means be the most expensive - tuition prices at Penn State and the University of Vermont this year, for example, are already over Berkeley's announced rate for next year.  But there is no doubt that Berkeley's announced increase will move it up in these dubious rankings.  Tuition at the other UC campuses is generally lower than at Berkeley, but still high compared to peer institutions. (If you are interested in reading more, here is a link to the UC news office information about the fee increases.)

Undoubtedly the protests and outrage at the Regents' decision is due not just to the large increase imposed for this spring and next year, but also because of the fact that UC historically had been one of the cheaper public universities in the country, especially considering the perceived quality of the education that students at most campuses enjoy.  Data from the Washington Higher Ed Board show that twenty years ago, Berkeley was the18th least expensive flagship in the nation.  By 1999, it had jumped to 19th most expensive in the nation, and next year's rate will undoubtedly put it in the top five.  So in two decades, the comparable price of Berkeley has changed quite radically.

But many of the articles included little about what the Regents had decided about financial aid for next year.  The university is expanding its "Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan," which next year will guarantee that students with financial need and family incomes below $70,000 will not have to pay any tuition or fees (but may still have to pay for room, board, books, etc.).  So these students will be held harmless by the fee increase.  In fact, the press release issued by the UC President's Office states the combination of state, federal, and institutional grant aid and tax credits will ensure that the three-fourths of students who come from families with incomes below $180,000 will see no increase in their fees over this year.

In comparison to most other flagship universities, Berkeley has done an excellent job enrolling low- and moderate-income students, as measured by the proportion of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants.  In an issue brief I wrote for The Century Foundation, I examined the proportion of Pell Grant recipients enrolling at almost 150 of the nation's most selective colleges and universities (both public and private) in the 2001-02 academic year.  At that time, 32.4 percent of Berkeley undergraduates received Pell Grants, a rate higher than all but two other institutions (one of which was UCLA).

The most recent data (2007-08) available from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) show that 28 percent of Berkeley undergrads still receive Pell Grants.  Many of Berkeley's flagship peers come nowhere near this level of achievement in enrolling low- and moderate-income students:
U. of Michigan - 8%
U. of Virginia - 8%
U. of Illinois - 16%
U. of Georgia - 12%
to name just a few.

It's important to note that there is research that shows that students, particularly those from poorer families, react to the sticker price of college (the posted price before subtracting grant aid) more than they do the net price when making decisions on enrolling in postsecondary education.  One can understand why when the majority of the news coverage of the Regents' decision yesterday focused on the fee increase, with little information about the financial aid initiatives.  So there is, and should be, some concern about whether these increases will dissuade some poorer students from attending UC who otherwise would qualify for admission.

But just as there are a good proportion of poor students at UC, its more selective campuses such as Berkeley and UCLA also have a good percentage of more well-off students.  The TICAS data show that in 2007-08, 42 percent of Berkeley undergrads and 47 percent at UCLA did not even bother applying for financial aid.  While it is possible that some of these students may have financial need even though they did not bother applying for aid, the chances are much greater that most of these students came from families who had income and assets large enough that they knew they would not qualify for state, federal, or institutional aid.

One advantage of higher fees is that they allow the university to capture the consumer surplus of these wealthier students, an issue I wrote about in an earlier post this month.  Remember, even at a fee level of approximately $12,560 next year, a Berkeley education is still going to be much cheaper than the alternative at almost all private universities, or out-of-state public universities.  Clearly many of these families would be willing to pay even more, so it makes economic sense for the university to capture these higher fees from these families and turn them around into need-based grants for students from poorer families.

The UC Regents are in a tough position.  The university is facing a budget shortfall of over $1 billion (before the fee increase), due largely to the cut in its state appropriation.  There are certainly steps that the institution needs to take to make sure it is operating as efficiently and effectively as possible, but it is unrealistic to expect that it can reduce its budget $1 billion on the cost side.  Employees at UC are already facing 11 to 26 days of furlough this year as a cost-cutting measure.  Without generating more revenue - and the university has also committed itself to raising $1 billion for student support over the next four years - it would have little choice other than to let the quality of the education degrade even further.  And this would be an absolute travesty for an institution that has long been a jewel of American public higher education.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Revoking tenure for a minor error? Or a case of intellectual dishonesty?

An article yesterday in In Denver Times detailed the firing of tenured professor Angelina De La Torre of Metro State College in Denver.  Her transgression?  According to the article - and this post is based on what is reported in that article - this was the reason:
"During a post-tenure review process, which every tenured professor is subject to every five years, De La Torre submitted her updated curriculum vitae, or dossier. On the dossier, she listed a paper as having been published in 2005 in a specialized academic journal.

A review of the dossier showed that the journal did not contain the article De La Torre claimed to have published in 2005.

The college’s investigation report said she 'intentionally' lied on a review of her performance. According to the Handbook for Professional Personnel, the code of conduct for professors, such dishonesty is grounds for dismissal."

De La Torre's defense was that it was an honest error; she had presented the paper at a conference and had submitted it with a check for $25 with the understanding that it would be published in one of the organization's journals.  She had assumed it was, but evidently hadn't seen it in print.  She said she had spoken to the organization's executive director who gave her the information about the issue of the journal in which her article appeared.  Her article did not appear in the journal she had claimed on her CV, and the Board of Metro State this month upheld her firing.

This case raises interesting questions.  Is this a case of an honest error by a professor who had, according to the article, an otherwise illustrious career at Metro State?  Or does her mistake cut to the core of the concept of academic honesty: not taking credit for something you did not write?  One could argue that punishing someone so severely, to the extent of revoking their tenure, seems to be overly draconian for what many could see as an honest mistake.  After all, De La Torre was already tenured, and was undergoing a post-tenure review; the argument goes that she likely had little to gain by adding one publication to her CV that she hadn't written.  But as faculty members, our worth and reputations are very tightly entwined with our academic honesty and integrity.  Anything that calls that integrity into question could be perceived to be enough to warrant dismissal, particularly if called for in the faculty handbook.

De La Torre has said that she will sue the university to get her job back, so we will have wait to see (assuming her suit goes forward) if and how the court will rule.  One lesson we should all learn from this case, however, is to be very cautious with our curriculum vitae and similar materials that we use to describe our scholarly and other accomplishments.  Even if she does prevail, and gets her job back, I am sure that the experience both she and Metro State have been through has damaged both parties.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Stop financial aid for wealthy students - responses to comments

I recently published an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed titled “Stop Financial Aid for Wealthy Students.” It generated a number of comments; in fact, it was the second most-commented article on the site for the week (second only to a news article titled “The Power of Race”) [Note: Currently the most commented in the past week on 11/10.]

Many posters were supportive of my views, but others were quite critical. Here are my responses to some of the criticisms people raised, along with a few other interesting posts. I have cut and pasted all or some of the comment, typos and all (you can go to the article to read the full comment), and then respond.

1. “Let's just remember that 120K doesn't get you the same lifestyle in New Jersey as it might in Texas before we call people at that level wealthy. Having lived in both places, and not being the extravagant type, I can tell you that $150K is the equivalent of a lot less elsewhere.”

“I realize that many family have a lot less, but with three paid jobs in the family (2 for me, 1 for my wife), we make about 150K. After mortgage, living expenses in NYS, state income taxes, medical bills, a private school tuition of 20K-30K or more would be the straw that breaks the camels back.”

“I disagree completely with Dr. Heller. I would like to know how a family with an income between $120,000 and $180,000 can pay to educate multiple children at $52K per year. Are we supposed to live on nothing? My family falls in this income range and I can assure you that we are certainly neither wealthy nor price insensitive; in fact, this group is the hardest hit by the exorbitant college tuition in this country. We don't qualify for need-based financial aid and cannot afford the pricetags of most private institutions.”

All three are correct that $150,000 or even $200,000 in income does not put you in the class of Bill Gates, i.e., someone who can purchase whatever they want without even thinking about it. Nevertheless, as I point out in the article, $200,000 does put you in the top 5% of all families across the country. Being among the top 5% or 10% of families in the country should not necessarily entitle you to the right to or privilege of having your child’s education at one of these elite institutions subsidized to the extent that that it is under current policies.

I’d love to be able to afford a Ferrari, but cannot given my income and other choices I have made. I have other good options that fulfill my transportation needs. Similarly, there are plenty of other postsecondary options for these families: lower cost institutions, borrowing to pay for a more expensive college, or as one poster noted, attending other institutions that offer merit scholarships. One commenter included the cost of private school tuition; this is clearly a choice that family made, and if it leaves them with less money for college, then they have to live with that decision.

One person summarized these arguments very cogently: “I do agree that $150K in Austin is not the same as $150 in New York City, but for those of you complaining that parents with a $120K+ income deserve to have this children qualify for financial aid because of the $52K/yr price tag, remember just one thing: one can get a good college education without going to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. Why not go the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan at approximately half the cost? Or, if the network and cache of the Ivies are that important to you, take out student loans. Subsidies for the middle class and/or wealthy are unconscionable in this economy. Harvard is going to fire librarians, but give $34K in aid per year to a kid with a family income of $150K?”

And yes, the cost of living differs in different parts of the country. Living in a rural area, I am fully aware that the cost of living here differs from that of the metropolitan New York area. But if some of these posters want to complain about the difficulty of living on $150K in New York, I would like to see them try to live in the Boston area on the $30,000 a year a janitor at Harvard may make. Or as one person said, “So private institutions are giving grants to the wealthy, but laying off staff. One wonders what the salaries of the layed off staff were? Can you look a janitor who makes $24 K in the face and say that I have to terminate you because I need your salary to give a wealthy kid a grant?”

2. “As a parent of a Yale freshman, and a single parent with an income in the 60-12K range, I am very grateful for the aid afforded to us. Had Yale not had such a generous aid policy, my son would not have been able to attend. It's high time that these students' achievements be rewarded, no matter what the family income. I work in a college where most of the students are from low income backgrounds, and, unlike the atmosphere at Yale, the attitude most of the time is that of entitlement, not hard work and earning your keep.” [emphasis added]

I would love to know at what college this parent works – or more appropriately, on which planet he or she lives? Based on my experience, and that of many of my other faculty colleagues around the country with whom I speak, it is the students from wealthier families at the elite institutions who are the ones who arrive with and maintain a much greater sense of entitlement, not the low-income students.

3. “My step-daughter attends a small, respected regional liberal arts college and has reached the maximum amount of loans and grants permissible by the federal and state government. She received a large college scholarship and received an outside scholarship because her father survives on worker's compensation. And yet, despite a family income below $30,000, there is an outstanding bill of $3,000 per semester.”

This commenter is absolutely correct – the data on financial aid show very clearly that students from lower-income families generally face much higher levels of unmet need than those from middle- and upper-income families.

4. “I have known undergrads whose parents continued to claim them as tax deductions while providing no actual support, which kept the student from being able to receive financial aid. There should be a way around this.”

This comment was in response to an early person who said her parents did not provide any support when she went to college. There is in fact a “way around this” – it is called professional judgment, which financial aid officers can apply based on an individuals’ circumstances. If the person can in fact document that this has occurred, they can be treated differently.

5. “The ‘financial aid’ provided by these wealthy institutions is NOT financial aid. It is tuition discounting and it's all about marketing and retention. . . Raise the institutional profile etc.”

This may be true for some institutions, but certainly not Harvard, Yale, and the like. How much higher can their profiles be raised?

6. “These schools are privately run enterprises and how they see fit to run their college is their business. If they were public, the article and discussion would be appropriate. However, they are private so they only have to report to their benefactors and boards, not the public, students, faculty, researchers, staff, etc.”

I respectfully disagree (as does Senator Charles Grassley, I am sure). These private institutions benefit from huge public subsidies in the form of 100% income tax deductions for charitable gifts made to them, exemptions from almost all federal, state, and local taxes, and federal (and in most cases, state) support for research and student aid. Thus, I argue that they do have an accountability to the public good.

7. “If a child of a multi-billionaire applies and is admitted to Penn State, Dr. Heller's institution, doesn't that child receive a large discount off the cost of tuition based on something as silly as his state residence? What if Bill Gate's daughters apply to the University of Washington?”

In the ideal world, I would agree with this comment. In that world, we would increase tuition at public universities in order to capture the large consumer surplus that wealthy students enjoy through the subsidized tuition, and then use the increased tuition revenue to provide more need-based aid to poorer students. Unfortunately, much research shows that these poorer students tend to respond to the sticker price of college, rather than the net price, because of imperfect access to information about financial aid. Thus, if you moved toward what economists refer to as a “high tuition, high aid” student financing model, you run the risk of pricing out many needier students.

8. “Nice to know that as I look at my bank account, which has $30 in it with payday 10 days away, that our combined income of $150K makes us ‘wealthy’. Taxes (state, federal, local, and Medicare/Medicaid) eat up almost 40% of our gross income. We *always* have to pay on April 15th, despite having the maximum withholding.”

This person may not feel wealthy, but I return to what I said earlier: An income of $150,000 per year puts you in the top one-tenth of all families in the country, an income higher than 90% of all others in the nation. I recognize that each family’s circumstances differ, but I still find it difficult to accept a policy that automatically gives a huge subsidy to every student at this income level, without any means-testing at all. [Note: the author of this post commented here on my blog (as "DrMom") and I replied]

9. “So students' parents should be expected to pay half of their family income? After taxes, expenses, it just isn't possible!”

Once again, it should be up to families to decide whether or not to make the sacrifices necessary to pay for one of these elite institutions. Current income is not the only source available to pay for college; families and students can also choose to use savings, other assets, or borrowing. And most of these wealthy families have much higher levels of assets and access to credit than do poorer families.

Well, that’s it for now. Once again, I hope you will go back and read the entire article, along with all the comments. And please feel free to comment here also.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Another university caving in to business interests

Food industry critic Michael Pollan was slated to give a talk about the agribusiness at Cal State-San Luis Obispo.  Under the threat of rescinding a $150,000 donation from the chairman of a large agricultural firm, the university cancelled Pollan's lecture and instead put him on a panel discussion with a "meat-science expert," according to the Los Angeles Times.

This pattern of universities caving in to political or donor pressure to cancel controversial speakers is seen all over the country.  Last year, it was William Ayers, education professor at the U. of Illinois at Chicago who saw his speeches cancelled or postponed by the U. of Nebraska, Georgia Southern, and Boston College.  The argument used against Ayers is based on his time in the Weather Underground.  But it was interesting that each of these institutions had first invited him, knowing his background, and then rescinded the invitation after receiving pressure from donors, politicians, the media, or others.

Universities often cite "safety concerns" as the rationale for cancelling speeches by Ayers or other controversial academics such as Ward Churchill, formerly of the U. of Colorado.  I find it interesting that universities somehow manage to handle the security preparations when presidents or other high-profile domestic and foreign politicians come to campus, but are unable (or unwilling) to deal with security when a lowly college professor arrives.

I would have more respect for these institutions if they would admit that they were bowing to political or donor pressures in cancelling speeches by controversial figures, rather than falling back on the safety issue.  But isn't this what academe is supposed to be - a marketplace of ideas, including those that challenge the status quo from all sides of the political spectrum?

These invitation rescissions aren't restricted to left-wing speakers.  A Harvard student group just rescinded an invitation to speak that had been offered to the head of the Minuteman Project, an anti-immigration group.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Saturday Night Live satirizes on-line learning

Inside Higher Ed this morning described how Saturday Night Live had a nice satire of advertisements for on-line colleges. One commenter on the IHE story noticed the similarity between the SNL clip (you can click on these images for larger versions):

and an actual page from the University of Phoenix site:

Just a coincidence?  Who knows, but I'm sure the folks at the U. of Phoenix don't appreciate the humor.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Two higher ed stories on NPR

On my drive home from work yesterday, I caught two higher ed stories on All Things Considered. That's quite a feat, considering that my commute is only 7-8 minutes (I had to have a "driveway moment" to catch the end of the second story). The first story was about the resignation of Joseph White, the soon-to-be former president of the University of Illinois system. You may have heard that UI has been wracked by a scandal over the admission of politically-connected students, whose names were forwarded by legislators and other government officials to a special UI admissions list. While the university's press release didn't explicitly mention the scandal, it's quite clear that it played a role in White's resignation.

We all know that Illinois is a hotbed of political corruption (witness former Governor Rod Blagojevich's attempt to sell President Obama's senate seat), but is what went on at U. Illinois unique or standard practice at more public universities than we'd expect? I suspect that politically-connected admissions occur at many of these institutions, though probably not as blatantly as with a special list as existed at UI. More likely it occurs in a quiet phone call from a legislative or executive office to the government relations office in a university. Undoubtedly, many of these young men and women would have qualified for admission on their own, but the phone call is placed just to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

This reminds me of a situation I encountered in my own career; the circumstances are somewhat different, but it still speaks to the role of political influence over institutions. I won't say at which institution this occurred, but you can check my CV to get the list of four public universities at which I've taught. I will provide the caveat that some of this information came to me second hand, but from a reliable source. I had a state representative as a non-degree student in one of my classes, and after that semester he applied to the doctoral program in which I was teaching. But the program had a certain set of requirements that this individual did not fulfill, so he was turned down for admission. A short time after the notification was sent out, a phone call came from the campus chief executive's office indicating that the state representative should be admitted, which he subsequently was.

The second story was the one that kept me in the driveway to hear the ending. The story described the faculty walkout scheduled for today at the ten campuses of the U. of California to protest the furloughs, budget cuts, and tuition increases imposed by the UC system. UC employees are being furloughed for 11-26 days (which equates to a 4% to 10% pay cut) [corrected after original posting], and faculty have been told they can't take their furlough on days they are teaching. The faculty want the right to be able to distribute the furlough days over their three main areas of service: teaching, research, and service. The argument is that by allowing some classes to be missed, the impact will be more obvious to students and administrators.

I believe that the organizers of the walkout honestly do have the interests of students and the quality of education they receive at heart, and in the NPR story one of the organizers did a good job articulating this. But I suspect that their perspective will engender little sympathy from the general public, most of whom likely have an image of faculty - especially those at UC, who are on average the most highly-paid among the three public sectors in California - as being well compensated for the work they do. Given what others outside of the academy are facing in the economic downturn, I doubt that few of them will be marching behind the UC faculty.

While the term "professor" is very broad-ranging in this country, including everything from very well-compensated, tenured professors at elite research universities, to "beltway bandit" adjuncts who struggle to make a living teaching five or more courses a semester across multiple institutions, it is likely the former image that most of the general public have in their minds when they think about "professors." We probably have to do a better job of public relations if we hope to garner additional support for higher education among the general public, and an even better job if we want more support for faculty working conditions in general.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A questionable strategy for increasing university revenues

This week's Sunday Times of London had an interesting article about a movement on the part of some British universities to increase revenues by accepting more overseas students. "Overseas" in the British universities means non-European Union students, as EU students get treated the same as British students for tuition and tuition loan purposes. Thus, increasing the proportion of overseas students at the expense of British students is a way to increase revenues. The suggestion came from the incoming chairman of the Russell Group, roughly equivalent to the Association of American Universities here in the U.S.

This strategy is akin to those U.S. public universities which increase the proportion of out-of-state students, who generally pay much higher tuition rates than resident students. For example, out-of-state freshmen students entering Penn State's flagship campus at University Park this year pay 85% higher tuition than Pennsylvania residents ($25,134 vs. $13,604, and this doesn't include mandatory fees, which are the same for resident and non-resident students). Many U.S. universities try to keep it quiet if they increase the proportion of out-of-state students, as they don't want to send a signal that they're favoring these students at the expense of residents (whose families subsidize the tuition rate through the state appropriation received by public universities). Some states cap the proportion of students who can come from out-of-state, but many provide leeway to the public universities to decide for themselves.

What is particularly interesting about the British situation is that the universities are apparently being very upfront about their decision, and appear to be unafraid of any backlash from either the government or the public. They've used the rationale that they will likely be facing large cuts (up to 25%) in the general support they receive from the government. That leaves them with few options other than to admit more overseas students, who at most universities pay at least three times the current tuition of £3,225 paid by British students. It will be interesting to see whether the Russell Group universities will move forward with this plan.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The high cost of higher education

I was a guest today on WHYY's (Philadelphia) Radio Times talk show with Marty Moss-Coane. You can stream an MP3 or download it from the show website; my segment starts at 34:45 into the show.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

President Obama and socialist indoctrination

As you likely have heard, President Obama will be giving a video address directly to schools on Tuesday. The focus of his remarks will be on "on the importance of taking responsibility for their [students] success in school." Last Thursday, the first day of schools in the State College Area School District, I learned from some friends in the district that the superintendent had decided to leave it up to individual teachers whether to show the broadcast or not in their classes. If so, I was told, teachers had to allow students to opt out if they or their parents did not want them to participate.

Curious about why this decision had been made, I sent an email Thursday evening to the superintendent, Richard Mextorf, with copies to the school board members. Dr. Mextorf is new to the district, having been in the job for about six months. I've pasted below the full record, recognizing that this gets a bit lengthy, but in the interest of not censoring or selectively editing what he had to say. I should go on record as saying that I would have written him exactly the same email if it had been President Bush rather than Obama.

My email to him, Thursday evening:
Dr. Mextorf:

I have heard from other parents that the district will be requiring written parental permission for students to hear President Obama’s speech on education to the nation’s children next Tuesday. I understand that sometimes rumors about misinformation get started, but if the parental permission requirement is in fact true, I want to let you know how disappointed I am in this decision. I have read the advance information about the president’s speech, and I simply cannot understand how listening to the president exhort children to work harder in school can be considered controversial enough to require parental permission for students’ participation. Given the timing, with the Labor Day holiday on Monday, I think it will be difficult for many parents to provide the required consent. As a parent of two children in the district, as well as a researcher and teacher of educational policy, I find this decision potentially very disturbing.

If this is in fact the district’s decision regarding this activity, I hope you will provide me with an explanation of why the decision was made, and how parents and other community members were included in the decision making process. Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Dr. Donald E. Heller
College Township

His reply Friday morning:
Dear Dr. Heller:

Thank you for the opportunity to address your concern:
1. Viewing the address will be at the discretion of the teacher, depending on relevance to the curriculum.
2. Students must be allowed to opt out of the address, with an alternative activity being provided during that time.
3. A link to the address will be provided on our website for those who did not have the opportunity to view the address
4. Permission slips are not required for this activity.


Richard J. Mextorf
Superintendent of Schools
State College Area School District

Since he didn't address the "why" aspect of my question, I sent this reply:
Dr. Mextor: Thanks for your quick reply and clarification of the opt out procedure. I still would like to know why the president’s speech has been identified as an “opt out” activity, however. For example, we don’t normally provide an opportunity for students to opt out of a discussion of the Pythagorean theorem in geometry class, or a discussion of the framing of the U.S. Constitution in U.S. History class, so I wonder why the president’s speech seems to have been singled out in this fashion.

One high school student has reported to me that his teacher told the class that they would be able to watch the speech only if everyone in the class agreed to do so; if one student decided to opt out, then this would remove the opportunity for the class to watch the speech together (and I fully recognize that teenagers are on occasion somewhat erroneous in what they report back on what happens in school). I know that your office cannot control what each teacher does in the classroom, but this example is also troublesome. While providing the students the opportunity to watch the speech at a later time on the district website is an alternative, this will not allow for class discussion between teachers and students of the president’s speech. The opportunity to have a guided discussion about the president’s speech and the issues he raises about American education can be a valuable civics lesson for all students.

My concern is that providing students with the opt out option identifies this as a “controversial” activity along the lines of others, such as health education, that students (and parents) are normally provided with an opportunity to opt out of. I do not understand why this speech by the president is seen as controversial enough to be flagged as an opt out activity. So if you could explain why it has been, and the procedure behind the decision, I would appreciate it.

Thanks again.

Don Heller

His response, within an hour:
Dr. Heller:

We have had stakeholders weigh-in on both sides of the issue; some have suggested that, if we mandate that students must view the address, we are forcing children to be subjected to socialism reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. Others suggest we are shirking our civic responsibility if we do not see to it that all children view the address.

I made the decision to let individual teachers decide, based on their judgment about relevance to the curriculum on that day and at that time. I trust our teachers as professionals to make responsible decisions regarding viewing the address. The opt out is to allow parents to decide for their child. The link to the website is to make it easier for parents to view the message with their child, should they not have an opportunity to do so in school.

Thank you for your sensitivity regarding the information from the high school student. In situations such as this, I find it beneficial to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt that I do not have all the information, the proper context, or that the information is part of a bigger picture.

The guidelines I established were to give teachers the opportunity to make an informed, professional judgment, to allow parents the right to remove their child if desired, and for parents and students to have access to the address if they did not have opportunity to do so at school.


Richard J. Mextorf
Superintendent of Schools
State College Area School District

At that point I decided to bring the dialogue to a close:
I appreciate your sharing the explanation of the process. As one who teaches the politics of education, I’m very sensitive to the pressures you face on issues like this, and the difficulty of trying to please everyone.

Don Heller

As one friend wrote to me after I posted the correspondence on Facebook, "He's punting, and I am *completely* unimpressed by him." I'm sure the superintendent received complaints from some parents, and he probably decided that the path of least resistance was to allow an opt out. So this can be interpreted as a punt, for sure. As I wrote to him, I am sympathetic to the situation he is put in. With the caveat that I have never met the man, and know little about him (the search and his appointment occurred while we were in London earlier this year, so I didn't follow it at all), I doubt that he believes that Obama's speech is an attempt at "forcing children to be subjected to socialism reminiscent of the former Soviet Union." I'm sure he was relating what he had been hearing from some parents. I would imagine and hope that if he had been around a while longer, and had developed more political capital (both with the community as well as his board), he may have been willing to stand up to these parents. The district's website has nothing about this decision, so for the great majority of parents, all they may know about it (if anything at all) is any materials the teachers may have sent home with the children.

In theory, I imagine the district will allow a parent to opt their child out of pretty much any part of their education. But as I wrote to him, singling out this activity - and giving it that attention - sends the wrong message to teachers, students, and parents. There has been nothing that I have seen in the advance publicity about this speech, either from the White House itself, or in the news reports about it, that Obama will be talking about anything controversial. Nevertheless, conservative talk radio and the ever-vigilant Fox News have been raising the "indoctrination" flag and urging parents to boycott the speech.  Here's one good editorial in the LA Times about it, and here's the chairman of the Florida Republican Party ranting about Obama's speech (just proving once again that sage statement by Mark Twain, "Better to keep one's mouth shut and be thought a fool, then to open it and remove all doubt").

I frequently have both school administrators and teachers in my classes, and we talk a lot about the difficulty of navigating political controversies in the schools. This is one example, however, where I would like to see the district leadership show more guts and be proactive in standing up to the political right.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Podcast on the economic crisis and financial aid

I recorded a podcast recently with USC's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice on the impact of the economic crisis on financial aid. You can listen to it here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A refreshing endowment story

There has been much coverage in the press about the decline in endowment values at many of the country's wealthy universities, and the impact it has had on their operations (here's just one example). But here's a nice story about Cooper Union, which saw its endowment decline by less than 3% in the first half of the year that ended June 30, and expects the value to be flat by the end of that year.

Cooper Union is unusual in that it charges no tuition to its students (similar to Berea College, in Kentucky), so it is dependent upon its endowment to subsidize more than two-third of its operating budget. Granted, Cooper Union benefits from owning the land on which the Chrysler Building in New York sits, but it also exercised prudent endowment management that shunned some of the exotic investments that got other institutions into trouble.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Funding of higher education in the U.S.

As a placeholder until I can get my head above the beginning-of-the-semester water and catch my breath, here's a link to an interesting video of a lecture on the funding of higher education given by my friend Michael McLendon, Associate Dean and Chief of Staff and Associate Professor of Public Policy and Higher Education at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. I couldn't have said it any better. Well, maybe just a tad.

And by the way, for those of you who were wondering -- still no budget in Pennsylvania, now two full months into the fiscal year.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pennsylvania Held Hostage - Day 42

We're now 11 days into August, and still no budget for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That means that Penn State and the other public universities still have no clue what their appropriation for the year will be -- and in our case, at Penn State, this is with only 13 days until classes start.

It's becoming almost comical, what Philly Inquirer columnist Karen Heller (no relation) calls a "tour-de-farce." The state has passed a stopgap bill to ensure that state workers in critical departments (obviously a definition subject to much discussion) are at least now receiving a paycheck, yet 255 other state employees are receiving layoff notices. Hard to tell whether Governor Rendell and the legislature are any closer to agreeing on how to bail the Commonwealth out of its budget mess. Latest figurs show the two parties still about $2 billion apart. Stay tuned for further updates.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Whatever happened to fiduciary responsibility?

Seems like every day there's another story about a college or university that is in some form of financial distress. If it's not Harvard University dropping 11 digits worth of endowment value (check out the Vanity Fair article for interesting coverage), then it's the University of California and California State University systems furloughing their employees.

But the smaller, less prestigious schools generally don't receive the same kind of media coverage that the big boys do. One interesting story, though, is about Greensboro College, a small liberal arts school in the city of the same name in North Carolina. Like many of its peers, it has run into financial problems over the last year. It has had to layoff employees and cut the pay of most of the remaining staff by 20 percent. In fact, Greensboro got itself into such trouble that it was forced to turn to Bank of America for a loan to meet payroll and continue operations. And to get that loan, it had to put up as collateral all of its real estate and its entire endowment. Greenboro's long-time (16 years) president, Craven Williams, stepped down abruptly earlier this month.

Williams had embarked on an ambitious building and acquisition plan, using borrowed funds to do so. This had evidently exacerbated Greensboro's problems, causing the extreme measures it was forced to take this spring. What is striking, though, are some comments made by former trustees in an article in the local Greensboro newspaper, the News and Record. Here's what a couple of them had to say:
“There wasn’t a whole lot up for discussion,” recalled former trustee Tom Wright. “There would be a plenary session, but anything presented, it was as if the financial committee had already reviewed it.”

Said another former trustee, Richard Levy: “If you’re told, 'Everything’s running OK,’ and you’re not told about problems, you don’t go looking for them. You’re there to help.”

If they were accurately quoted, these are stunning admissions by the former trustees. Either they were purposely misled by the university's administration, or they were asleep at the switch in not being aware of the financial situation in which the college found itself.

Trustees play an important role in overseeing the fiduciary health of the institution, particularly in private institutions for which there is little or no government oversight and control. To let an institution get into such financial straits - caused not just by external economic and financial circumstances, but also by active decisions made by the institution's leadership and board - without the board being aware is an admission that at least some trustees were not paying attention. While it is easy to sit back and not go looking for problems, trustees have to be more proactive about asking the difficult questions.

Not to single out Greensboro; probably some of the same issues can be raised about the Harvard Corporation. Much has been written that Harvard is now reaping the downside of the aggressive endowment investment strategies that it has pursued for many years now (and for which it has very generously compensated the staff of Harvard Management Company). But perhaps there will be some hard questions asked about whether the university and others like it were too aggressive in pursuing increases in endowment value.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Making a silk purse from a sow's ear?

[Warning: severe sarcasm alert in this post]

Sunday's New York Times had an article about the independent college admissions consultant industry. The article had me from the intro:
The free fashion show at a Greenwich, Conn., boutique in June was billed as a crash course in dressing for a college admissions interview. Yet the proposed “looks” — a young man in seersucker shorts, a young woman in a blue blazer over a low-cut blouse and short madras skirt — appeared better suited for a nearby yacht club. After Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, was shown photos of those outfits, she rendered her review.

“I burst out laughing,” she said.

Seersucker shorts? Madras skirt? You have got to be kidding me, or to use one of my daughter's and her teenage friends' favorite colloquialisms, "WTF????" (I'll never admit to using it myself, of course). Any kid stupid enough to be seen wearing one of those outfits to a college interview should be denied admission on the spot on the basis of demonstrating exceedingly poor taste. The fashion show was of course organized by a college consultant, who I am sure has no shortage of clients in tony Greenwich. It is almost as if you can hear the consultant thinking to herself, "How outlandish an outfit can I get these guillible kids to wear as a way to demonstrate their desperation to get into college?" The article doesn't say if she is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, but if so, she should have her membership revoked.

Another quote from Bruce Poch, admissions dean at Pomona:
[There are some] genuinely rational and knowledgeable folks out there doing this work. Some of the independents leave me looking for the nearest emergency shower.

Both Jennifer and Bruce are well-respected and knowledgeable in the admissions industry, particularly among those in selective institutions. Both also have a great sense of humor, and I know have had plenty of experience dealing with these consultants. And on top of it, Bruce is a dead ringer for Ted Allen of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." If you don't believe me check out this picture and this one (picture him with glasses on in this latter picture).

The Times article describes how some of the consultants charge families up to $40,000 to help prepare their child for competitive college admissions and help them get into their first choice college. It describes how the industry has flourished in recent years, growing from an estimated 2,000 consultants to 5,000 in just the last three years, no doubt preying on the anxiety families have about getting their best and brightest children into the most well-known and priciest colleges.

In some respects, this article would normally be a yawner, outlining some of the less-than-honest tactics (and in other cases, outright lies) of some of these consultants. After all, other media have covered this industry and its tactics in the past. But being on the front page of the Sunday Times does merit some recognition, and as my late mother-in-law was fond of saying, "If it's in the Times, it must be true."

There's always the possibility that these consultants will prey on poor families who know little about the college admissions process, and who have no or little access to high school counselors.
And in fact, some of them are starting to develop much lower-priced "products," such as DVDs, to try to expand their markets down the income ladder. I'll admit that I have yet to purchase any of them myself, but most of these sound like they are little more helpful (and honest) than the DVDs advertised on television that teach you how to buy houses with no money down. Don't hold your breath waiting for me to review any of them here.

The reality, however, is that the people spending $15,000 for a "junior/senior" package for their child or even better, $14,000 for a four-day college admissions "boot camp," likely have more than enough money to spend on making little Johnny or Janey look on paper as if they are something they are not, and on getting them into a college they probably would have stumbled into on their own even without the assistance of these consultants. So if they want to spend that money to make them feel better that they're doing all they can to help their children, all the power to them.

The boot camp is run by one of the admissions consultant industry's leading lights, Michelle Hernandez, who according to the article, offers a top-shelf package to families that costs $40,000. Hernandez is not shy with the press, and on her firm's website she proudly displays all the media which she has graced.

Her website displays her stellar credentials for the job:
As an Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College for four years and the academic dean of a private high school in South Florida, Hernández has crafted a unique angle for assisting students gain admissions to the most selective colleges, incorporating her “inside perspective” on the admissions adventure. She is one of a small handful of college consultants with years of hands on admissions experience and a ten year history of helping students through her work.

Dr. Hernández graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1989 and went on to earn a Master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University and a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern. She is married to Bruce Bayliss, former headmaster of the International School in Portland, Oregon. They have two children, ages 11 and 5, two golden retrievers and a Gordon setter. In her non-existent spare time, Hernández enjoys stargazing with her 16 ½ inch Dobsonian telescope, working out and reading obsessively. The family lives in Weybridge, Vermont.

16 ½ inches - wow, that's impressive!

She also displays "Michelle's Statistics," which trumpets the number of her clients who applied to specific universities and the number who were admitted ("1/1 to Carleton College, 4/5 to Colgate. . ." - and in case you were wondering, no, she does not provide "Michelle's Statistics" for Roxbury Community College, but she did have a 100%, 1 out of 1, success rate for Penn State this year). She of course does not tell you, because she does not want you to know and in fact, cannot tell you, how many of those applicants would have been admitted to those institutions without her help. But hey, why take the chance that little Janey won't get into the one and only college out of the 4,000 out there that will make her happy. So best to spend the $40,000 just to be sure.

When questioned about the high fees she charges, Hernandez responded to the Times with what can only be described as one of the most ridiculous and pompous quotes ever recorded on the pages of the New York Times:
“It’s annoying when people complain about the money,” the Vermont-based counselor, Michele Hernandez, said. “I’m at the top of my field. Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon? If you want to go with someone cheaper, or chance it, don’t hire me.”

Okay now, so um, college admissions is like brain surgery? I don't think so, but heck, if it helps her sell herself more, good for her.

As with anything else out there in the marketplace, caveat emptor.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Update on Penn State's tuition

Given the U.S. Department of Education's decision to return Governor Rendell's application for stimulus funding because of the exclusion of the four state-related universities, Penn State has decided to go with the lower set of tuition increases (3.7% to 4.5%) the Board of Trustees had authorized. This will certainly be a relief to students and their families, but is a risk on the part of the university. While the ED returned Rendell's application, there's still no guarantee Penn State will see any of the stimulus money. Here is Penn State's news release.

So the university is opening itself up to the possibility it will have to implement either large mid-year expenditure cuts and/or a mid-year tuition increase if the stimulus money does not come through. In addition, since Pennsylvania still does not have a budget (17 days into the fiscal year and counting), there's still the risk that the university's appropriation could require it to implement some of these mid-year measures. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Update on the Keystone Cops

The Philly Inquirer reported today that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Governor Rendell that he cannot exclude the four state-related universities from his request for stimulus funding (see my post of last Monday for the full story). He instructed the governor to resubmit the application, including Penn State and the other state-related universities.

A spokesman for Governor Rendell said that the battle isn't over yet, according to the Inquirer article.

"Given the governor's unparalleled support for higher education, the department's decision reinforces the state's ability to decide how to allocate these federal funds among our colleges, and we remain committed to using those funds where they can have the most impact," Ardo said.
Guess we'll just have to wait and see who is going to win this battle.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Not-So-Golden State and the Keystone Cops

Just when we thought the economy had bottomed out and things were starting to turn around, the news on the higher education financial front continues to be pretty dismal. As in past recessions, it's very likely that there will be a lag behind the general upswing in the economy and when higher education starts to benefit from it. And given the depth of this recession, the lag will likely be longer and more painful to endure.

Last Saturday's New York Times reported on the dire situation at the University of California, often considered to be the shining jewel among public higher education systems (I know the California papers have covered this story more thoroughly, but I can't get home delivery of the LA Times or San Fran Chronicle here on the East Coast). The UC system is trying to figure out a way to make up for a $640 million reduction in its state appropriation for this year (a combined $813 million reduction combining last year's and this year's cuts), and according to the article (and an announcement by President Mark Yudof), is implementing "furloughs, deferred hiring and cuts in academic programs" to close the gap.

While personnel cuts are never easy, UC should be applauded for the way they are undertaking it. Rather than across the board furloughs, as so many institutions have done, UC is doing it in a very progressive manner, with higher-paid employees being forced to take much longer furloughs (and therefore larger pay cuts). Faculty hiring is being reduced, and admissions to some academic programs - including the doctoral program in education at Irvine (which hits uncomfortably close to home for those of us in education schools) - are being halted. Also to Yudof's credit, the budget for the president's office in Oakland has been cut by a third. This is not just a symbolic move, as the president's office at UC is substantial and has long been accused by the ten campuses as suffering from administrative bloat.

The magnitude of the $813 million reduction in state funding over the two years can best be understood when examined on a per-student basis. Spread across the system's approximately 227,000 students, this means a reduction of over $3,500 per student, a substantial amount even if one considers that some of the reductions will (hopefully) be made in areas that do not directly impact students.

One can hold out hope that California will resolve its budget crisis in a way that does not penalize UC and the other two systems in the state in a fashion that will harm the quality of the systems in the long run. But it is hard to be optimistic given the challenges the state is facing.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch - aka, the wild and wacky Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - as I write we are now entering out third week of the fiscal year without having a state budget. The "budget held hostage" headlines throughout the media are getting just a bit tiresome. Governor Rendell and the state legislature are locked in a budget battle that can only politely be described as a high-stakes urinating contest in trading off cuts in expenditures versus increased taxes. If it weren't so serious it would be reminiscent of the old Keystone Cops movies.

The latest budget proposed by the Governor called for a cut of $60 million in Penn State's appropriation as compared to the initial appropriation the university received last year. This includes the $20 million rescission the Governor imposed in FY 2009, combined with an additional $40 million cut for FY 2010. The $60 million represents a reduction of 18 percent of last year's intitial appropriation. To compare to the appropriation cut being absorbed by the University of California, $60 million represents a reduction of approximately $650 per student over Penn State's 93,000 students.

Evidently Governor Rendell has a penchant for starting urinating contests of late. Earlier in the year, in introducing a new state-funded financial aid initiative (interesting move, considering the dire fiscal picture the Commonwealth is facing), he excluded from participation students attending the four state-related universities (Penn State, Temple, Lincoln, and Pitt) and private colleges, all of which participate in the existing state financial aid programs. The exclusion, according to an official in the Rendell administration was "because the state doesn't have as much control or influence over their tuition increases."

This was followed up by Rendell's request to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to exclude the state-related universities from Pennsylvania's share of the federal stimulus funds. Rendell's initial plan to ED included the four universities, but the revised plan submitted late last month cut the $40 million that had been earmarked for them (approximately half of which would have gone to Penn State to offset the appropriation cuts) and shifted it to other public institutions. Echoing the administration's earlier statement regarding the financial aid program, this time it said that the governor "had to make very difficult decisions about funding and has very little control over Penn State expenditures."

Penn State's response to the governor's decision was predictable. In a letter to Secretary Duncan, Spanier wrote:
"By arbitrarily re-defining The Pennsylvania State University as non-public … the governor is setting a dangerous precedent that the Department of Education should address. If the department approves this application as it is written, it gives governors in every other state the ability to pick and choose which public institutions they may support with federal dollars."

We have yet to hear if Duncan has responded, but you can sure this is not the end of the battles over Penn State's (and the other three institutions') status as a state-related university.

Penn State's response to the Governor's proposed appropriation cut was quite pointed. President Graham Spanier threw down the gauntlet in a letter to the Penn State "family" (which includes the Governor, as an ex officio member of the Board) released in conjunction with last week's Board of Trustees meeting, threatening to pile the cut onto the backs of students by implementing large tuition increases. These increases would be on top of rates that place Penn State's University Park flagship campus as the most expensive (for in-state students) in the country.

At its meeitng last week, the university's board adopted two different tuition schedule. The first was based on a state budget that restored Penn State's appropriation to the initial level received last year, i.e., the level in place before the $20 million rescission by the governor. If the legislature passes and the governor signs a budget at this level (an event that most observers put as having a chance somewhere being slim and none), then the university's tuition increases will range from 3.7 to 4.5 percent (the amounts differing for resident and non-resident students at University Park, and students at other Penn State campuses). If a budget passes that includes the currently-proposed $60 million reduction from last year's appropriation, then the tuition increases will be:

  • Campuses other than University Park: 4.9%
  • Non-resident students at University Park: 7.9%
  • Pennsylvania residents at University Park: 9.8%

The university has been clear that it will not be expecting students to pay for all of the cuts, no matter which tuition schedule is ultimately implemented. It has documented a series of expenditure cuts it has already implemented, including the decision to not give any salary increases for the 2009-2010 year. Nevertheless, the university's announcement of these potential increases says to the governor and legislature, "If you cut our budget as you are talking about, it is your constitutents - the students and their parents - who will pay the price." The need for large tuition increases may have been somewhat undermined by another Penn State news release from the trustees meeting: "Philanthropy to Penn State sets records, despite recession."

Stay tuned for further updates.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The potential equity risks in online education

A friend posted a link in her Facebook profile to an article this week in Inside Higher Ed that described the Education Department's funding for free, online college courses. I responded that I had mixed feelings about the program and in the push toward more online education in general, raising concerns about the potential for more stratification in what is already a highly bifurcated postsecondary system in the country. My friend works on online education, and asked me to elaborate on my remarks. So I decided this would be the appropriate place to do so.

It's helpful to understand first how the current postsecondary system is stratified. This stratification is on a number of dimensions, including racial/ethnic, family income, as well as other measures of socioeconomic status and academic capital, but I'll focus here just on income. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, has very good, nationally-representative surveys that allow us to examine whether different types of students attend postsecondary education, and if so, where they attend.

The current NCES longitudinal survey, the Educational Longitudnal Survey of 2002 (ELS:2002), is of students who were sophomores in high school in 2002. After the initial survey in 2002, students were surveyed again in 2004 (when most were high school seniors), and in 2006 (two years after expected high school graduation). The 2006 data were analyzed in an NCES report to examine the high school graduation and postsecondary behavior of students. The following chart summarizes the findings for students based on their familiy's income in 2002 (you can click on the image to get a full-size view):

As a benchmark, the median family income in 2002 was $51,680, so the first two income categories roughly represent the bottom half of the income distribution, and the latter two the top half.

As is clear, the high school graduation and postsecondry enrollment patterns are highly stratified by income. Seventeen percent of students in the bottom income group (<=$20,000) either did not graduate from high school and/or received a GED credential, while only three percent of the highest income group (>=$100,000) did. While only 52 and 63 percent of students in the bottom two income groups, respectively, had some postsecondary enrollment by 2006, 78 and 90 percent of students in the highest income groups did. What is even more stark is where students attended college. Students in the upper income category were more than three times more likely to enroll in a 4-year institution than were those in the bottom group.

When you dig into the data, other patterns emerge. The following chart is from a presentation I gave last year at the annual conference of the Council for Opportunity in Education. It shows the college attendance patterns of dependent undergraduates who were enrolled in college in the 2003-2004 school year, using data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (I need to update these with the most recent NPSAS data, but haven't gotten around to it yet).

These data divide all postsecondary students into family income quartiles. Over half of the students from the bottom quartile who were enrolled in college were attending either a community college or some other institution, the latter of which were primarily proprietary (for-profit) institutions. The higher income students were more likely to be attending a 4-year institution, and more likely to be attending full-time as well.

Okay, so having established the current stratified nature of the higher education system in the country, let me get back to my concerns regarding online education. When I speak to many policymakers, particularly those at the state level, there is a strong belief among many that online education will be the silver bullet that will help resolve the college cost crisis, as well as improving the state of college access. In other words, they believe that if we can only expand online education, we'll be able to get more students into and through postsecondary education for less money.

At some point, this may be true, but I don't believe there's compelling data yet to demonstrate that online education - in a true apples-to-apples comparison - is necessarily lower cost than traditional bricks-and-mortar postsecondary education (NB - I'm going to ignore the question for now of whether fully online education is "as good as" traditional education in terms of educational outcomes, writ large. I think my points are made even if one concedes this point). And more importantly, from my standpoint, I am concerned that if online education is perceived to be less expensive, that we will end up with a system that channels poor and underrepresented minority students into this option, reserving for more well-off students the option of attaining a postsecondary credential, and in particular a bachelor's degree, by attending a residential institution where the students benefits from all of the amenities and outcomes that are associated with that experience.

It is easy to envision of a set of student financing policies that would have this further stratification as an unintended consequence. Many states are examining policies that encourage students to start their postsecondary careers at community colleges, which are a lower cost (from the perspective of state funding) and price (from the perspective of the student) option as compared to many 4-year institutions, both public and private alike. In the same vein, they are looking into policies that help reduce both the opportunity cost of attending college (primarily that of being out of the labor markets, at least as a full-time worker) as well as the subsistence costs of attending college by finding options to the residential college experience. While these are certainly worthwhile exercises, I generally advise them to undertake these while ensuring that postsecondary opportunity and access to all the options that are available - community college, online education, and the more traditional, residential 4-year experience - are provided to students on as equal a basis as possible, regardless of their family's financial circumstances.

I am not arguing here that we should get rid of online education; I believe that there is certainly a place for it in our system. I think we do need much more and better research, however, that compares the full range of outcomes - academic, psychosocial, and developmental - of all the options before we start investing a lot more money in online education. But we need to be cautious that we do not create a system that is even more bifurcated than the one we already have in place.

Monday, June 15, 2009

We have splashdown

I thought I was prepared for reentry into the physical environment of my life and job after returning from our five months in London, but I guess you can never adequately prepare for it. This was my first sabbatical, so the first time I was away from (some) of my job responsibilities and office for an extended period of time.

Being back in the physical environment of our Center starkly confronts me with all the issues the Director has to deal with. I'll somehow manage them all, while dealing with the major and mini catastrophes that awaited us in our house upon our return.

After I manage to put out some of the smoldering fires on the work and home fronts, I'm going to get back to talking about higher education policy again.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cheers, Mate

Our last day in London is finally upon us. We leave bustling London tomorrow morning to return to bucolic Happy Valley. We're in the midst of packing up, which we've discovered is much easier on this end -- it just means finding everything we own scattered around the house and shoving it into one of our seven suitcases, one picture frame box (for Rosie's art work she's bringing home), and assorted carry-ons.

I think we all have mixed feelings, sad about leaving behind a wonderful experience here in London, but also looking forward to returning home to see friends (and family elsewhere around the States). We've been reflecting both upon all we managed to do while we were here, as well as those things to which we never made it. Luckily, the former far outnumber the latter. Anne's been religious about filling up her London Moleskin (thanks, Eric) with everything she's done in various categories: theatre, museums, outings, tourist sites, etc. I've been a little less compulsive, but for those of you who have friended me on Facebook, I have posted there a list of the shows I've seen, along with things I'll miss about London and those things I won't be missing quite as much.

As I look back on my blog over the last five months, I realized I've probably posted more about my life here in London than I have about higher education issues. Probably natural, given the difference in life here compared to back home. But I'm going to do my best to get back to some of the topics I promised to write about, such as the college admissions process here. I will be continuing to work with my friend and colleague Claire Callender, who has been absolutely a wonderful host, so I know I'll be learning (and hopefully writing) more about British higher education policy.

I'm also going to try to provide semi-regular posts on higher education issues in the States, but know I'll never be as religious at posting as my friends Sara and Liam over at The Education Optimists, another good blog on higher education -- but hell, they have two people writing! There is a lot going on, between the programs proposed by the Obama Administration, and the changes forced on the sector by the economic situation, so I'll do my best to provide commentary and additional information.

So back to packing, saying some last good-byes, taking one last stroll on the Regent's Canal (it's finally beautiful here, of course, now that we're leaving), and watching the finals of Britain's Got Talent tonight. Cheers, Mate!