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.