Saturday, February 20, 2010

Signs of the apocalypse, part 1

This week I had the opportunity to testify at a heaing of the Joint Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education of the California Legislature.  This hearing, on Affordability and Student Aid, was the third held by the committee, which is conducting its work as the Master Plan celebrates its 50th anniversary.

In a post on the blog 21st Century Scholar, written before this hearing, I questioned whether the Master Plan -- widely recognized as having created the best public higher education system in the country -- was in fact dead.  The State of California has managed to get itself in such a fiscal mess that it is unlikely that it can ever pull itself out.  It's not fair to just blame the current recession, which admittedly has battered California as much as any state. The fiscal problems, however, are symptomatic of a three-decade long antitax movement in California that has made it difficult for the legislature and governors to come up with enough funds to adequately fund the University of California, California State University, and the state's community colleges.

I'm sorry to report that, after sitting through part of the hearing this week, it is unlikely that this Joint Committee is going to be able to resolve the problems facing higher education in California.  It is clear that the fiscal constraints facing the state are unlikely to be removed without large-scale changes to the political structures there.  This would include changing laws and initiative petitions that have restricted the ability of the legislature and governors to raise the tax revenues necessary to support a world-class higher education system.  It would likely also require changing the earmarking of parts of the state budget to purposes such as K-12 education and corrections, both of which leave little flexibility for funding higher education when federal mandates such as Medicaid spending are taken into account.

I'm afraid that the reality is that the future will bring two things.  First, public higher education in California will be more expensive for this and future generations of Californians than those who had benefited from the first four decades or so of the Master Plan.  While UC and CSU have taken steps to make institutional grants available to financially-needy students (to supplement those funds available through Cal Grants and federal aid), it will likely be a challenge for them to maintain these commitments down the road.  Like many other public institutions, they will face immense pressure to address issues of middle-income (and even upper-income) affordability, at the expense of maintaining a commitment to access for poorer students. In a piece I wrote for The Century Foundation in 2003, I demonstrated how the most selective campuses of the UC system did a better job enrolling Pell Grant recipients than their peers around the country.  It is unlikely they will be able to continue this commitment in the future.

Second, the three sectors are likely to face a Hobson's choice of either allowing the quality of their institutions to degrade, or to restrict access.  I point out in my testimony that six of the UC campuses are ranked in the top 50 national universities, public and private, by U.S. News & World Report, and in the top 200 internationally by the Times Higher Education in London.  Starved of the necessary resources to maintain this level of quality, it will have to decrease.  Alternatively, the institutions could maintain quality, but at the expense of enrolling fewer students.  In the worst case scenario, quality would erode and access would be constricted.

I don't envy the task in front of the Joint Committee, or that of the administrators and faculty in the three sectors in California.  There are no easy solutions, other than going back to the public and voters in California and presenting them with the likely outcome if the existing antitax mentality continues.  And I am afraid of how the public will react to that proposition.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Another insult to the Canadians

This is not exactly about higher education, but file it under the "Itinerant" part of this blog.  Returning from testifying in front of the California legislature (which will be the subject of another post in the not-too-distant future), I picked up the Hemispheres magazine on the United flight.  There I found a nice article about what to do in Montreal.  At the end of the article, there was this map (click on the map to see a larger version):

Notice the small inset map, showing the position of Montreal in Canada and relative to the U.S. 

Unfortunately, the map is not even close to where Montreal truly is, as shown in Google maps:

Where the Hemispheres map shows Montreal is actually Kingston, ON.  Once again, we Americans demonstrate our ignorance of our neighbor to the north.  You can download a PDF version of the magazine article on the Hemispheres website.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another shooting on campus

The Chronicle of Higher Education

There have been too many instances of gun violence on college campuses in recent years.  This is obviously a reflection of our larger society, as I have previously written about.  But this particular incident hits very close to home, as University of Alabama Huntsville biology professor Any Bishop has been charged with shooting five of her colleagues and a staff member in the biology department at UAH.  Three people were killed and three others were injured and hospitalized.  The shooting, which occurred Friday afternoon at a meeting of the biology faculty, allegedly involved a dispute over Professor Bishop's tenure.  According to news reports, she was denied tenure last year, and apparently an appeal to the department was about to be or had recently been denied.  Here are links to stories in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed.

Anyone who has been in academe for any period of time can tell stories about disputes between colleagues.  I'm certainly aware of examples of these from my own career.  The tenure denial cases.  The academic couple in the same department who split when one of the pair had an affair with a graduate student.  The senior colleague who alleges discriminatory and inequitable treatment. 

No one ever expects disputes like these to escalate to the level of violence exhibited in Huntsville yesterday.  But as more and more of these instances occur, one can't help but think about the potential for it to happen at your own campus.  As conflicts between colleagues arise, it's all but impossible not to have in the back of your mind concern over the potential for violence to occur.

My thoughts are with the faculty, staff, and students at UAH in this difficult time.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation plays the heavy

This morning's Chronicle of Higher Education had an article about the National Merit Scholarship Corporation's attack on a blogger, Nancy Griesemer, for her publication of the state cutoff scores used by NMSC for its awarding of National Merit Scholarships.  Her point was that these cutoff scores vary widely from state to state, so that a student scoring at a certain level on the PSAT (used as the cutoff for the awarding of the scholarships) would qualify for a scholarship in one state, while a student scoring at exactly the same level in another state may not qualify.

As was criticized by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling in a report last year, the use of a single test for the awarding of the scholarships is an inappropriate use of a high-stakes test.  Nevertheless, the NMSC persists in this practice, and has refused to release data on the distribution of its scholarship recipients by race or socioeconomic status.

Seems that the NMSC accused Ms. Griesemer of publishing "proprietary information," yet these cutoff scores are fairly widely-distributed, such as to pretty much every high school guidance office in the nation.  Nevertheless, NMSC demanded that she take the information off of her blog, which she did.  As legal experts in the Chronicle article pointed out, you can't sue someone for publishing facts.  FairTest, an organization dedicated to the appropriate use of educational testing, and presumably more able to stand up to the NMSC, jumped to Ms. Griesemer's defense and assistance by publishing the list of state cutoff scores.  You can find FairTest's list here, where for example you can see that a PSAT score of 208 would be high enough to qualify you for a scholarship in Alabama, but a score of 221 would be required in Massachusetts or Maryland.

More on Sallie Mae's lobbying


In a post last December, I described how Sallie Mae has been one of the leaders in spending money to lobby Congress and the administration on student loan issues.  A report in last Friday's New York Times describes how Sallie Mae's lobbying expenses increased even further in 2009, to $8 million, more than double the amount it spent in 2008.  Seems like Sallie Mae isn't yet ready to give up the fight against the Obama administration's attempt to eliminate the FFEL program.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What was missing in the State of the Union

Over at Education This Week, hosted by the Educational Policy Institute, I blogged about what President Obama left out of his State of the Union speech regarding higher education.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rodney and me (with apologies to Michael Moore)

It's always interesting to see how people react to things I've published on the web or when I'm quoted in the media.  I've learned that's the risk you take when you put yourself out there.  In December, I published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle about the fee increases at the U. of California.  It generated only a handful of comments in the Chronicle's on-line edition, including one amazingly intelligent and articulate reader who said, "An incredibly insightful article from a professor from Pennsylvania who has no reason to be biased for or against California" (and I swear it wasn't me using an alias, and I highly doubt my mother reads the Chronicle).  But my favorite comment was from the reader who said, "Back to Pennsylvania, Bozo."  While first tempted to respond in kind with, "That's Professor Bozo to you," I somehow managed to resist the urge.  These are just a couple of examples of what I've seen from the general public.

But today I came across a blog post that was a little different, and from a source that should know better.  The blog, "The Third Leg: Career Higher Education," is published by my friends at the Career College Association (CCA), the lobbying organization for for-profit higher education institutions.  Today's post in the blog critiques an article in the Houston Chronicle by Jeanine Kever: "Kever quotes a Donald Heller, a traditional higher education stalwart, who suggests employers will not equate degrees from proprietary colleges with the University of Houston, Penn State or Rice."

I'm not quite sure what it means to be "a Donald Heller" -- is that supposed to be a slap in the face, as opposed to being called just plain ol' "Donald Heller"?  I also enjoyed being referred to as a "traditional higher education stalwart."  Again, I'm not sure if this means I'm traditional, and I'm a stalwart of higher education?  It's not too often that anyone who knows me calls me "traditional," but I certainly wouldn't take offense at being called a stalwart of higher education.  Or maybe it's implying that I'm a stalwart of traditional higher education, whatever that is (Mark Hopkins and a log?  Charles Elliot at Harvard?  The Yale Report of 1828?).

In any event, I find the whole thing rather amusing.  The blog post does not identify the author, but featured prominently next to the post is a picture of Harris Miller, President and CEO of the CCA.  Now Harris is actually a really nice guy; we both spoke at a hearing of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance a couple of years ago in Nashville, and in chatting during the breaks, found that we have quite a bit in common.  For example, we both share a passion for promoting access to postsecondary education for historically underserved populations of students.  If you're really interested in what Harris and I had to say at the hearing, you can watch a video of it.

So I'm going to assume it wasn't Harris himself who was dissing me, but probably some lackey of his who doesn't know that I am not just "a Donald Heller," but am actually the Donald Heller.  To paraphrase that great higher education stalwart Rodney Dangerfield, I don't get no respect.  To add insult to injury, the CCA blog lists 14  "Education Blogs of Note," and they have the audacity to exclude The Itinerant Professor from the list!
Oh, and by the way Harris -- I've got almost twice as many Facebook friends as the Career College Association does.*  So put that in your proprietary pipe and chew on it.


* at least today, that is

Monday, February 1, 2010

The death of the Master Plan for Higher Education in California?

My friends at the blog "21st Century Scholar" provided me with the opportunity to be a guest blogger there this week.  Here's my post on the Master Plan.