Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

December 13, 2018

A chemistry professor at Sweden’s Lund University intervened to rescue a doctoral student from an Islamic State warzone, The Local reported.

In 2014, Firas Jumaah contacted his adviser, Charlotta Turner, and told her that he and his family were hiding from Islamic State fighters. Jumaah, a member of the Yazidi ethnic minority group hated by the Islamic State, had entered the war zone voluntarily after learning from his wife that Islamic State fighters had captured the village next door.  

Upon learning her student was in danger, Turner contacted Lund’s then security chief, who hired a security company to arrange what ended up being a successful rescue mission for Jumaah and his wife and two children. "It was a unique event. As far as I know no other university has ever been involved in anything like it," said the security chief, Per Gustafson. 

December 12, 2018

One of only two historically black colleges for women in the country approached the brink Tuesday when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges announced it intends to revoke Bennett College's accreditation.

Bennett, a private institution in Greensboro, N.C., related to the United Methodist Church, had been on probation for two years. The college was out of compliance with its accreditor's rules on financial resources, and its probation cannot be extended for a third year.

The college, which has undertaken significant cost-cutting and fund-raising efforts in an attempt to shore up its financial position, is appealing the decision. Its president, Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, told the News & Record she plans to make the college's case at a Feb. 18 hearing.

“The door’s not closed all the way yet,” Dawkins told the newspaper.

SACSCOC does not extend probation for a third year, so the accreditor had the choice between restoring Bennett's accreditation or revoking it. A college or university that loses accreditation also loses access to federal Title IV funds, which is widely considered to be a fatal blow.

Bennett plans to reach out to donors in an attempt to improve its financial picture before the February hearing. Donors have already given generously, allowing the college to beat a $4 million fund-raising target set last year with $4.2 million in gifts and pledges.

The college's operating results had improved as well, with leaders reporting a surplus of $461,000 last year after a $1.1 million deficit for 2016-17. Undergraduate enrollment is up 15 percent year over year to 469 students, although enrollment is still far below the 780 reported in 2010.

This is not the first time Bennett has run into accreditation trouble. The college was on probation for two straight years before fund-raising convinced accreditors it had found sounder footing in 2003.

December 12, 2018

The Britain-based publisher Taylor & Francis reversed itself on a decision to decline to publish an article in a mathematics journal due to sanctions on Iran, where one of the article’s authors is based.

Todd Young, co-editor in chief of the journal Dynamical Systems and a professor of mathematics at Ohio University, said the production manager of the journal wrote a letter to the authors of the article stating that "Taylor & Francis could not publish the paper due to sanctions on the affiliation of one of the authors." Young said the decision was made without consultation of the editors in chief or members of the journal’s editorial board.

"We were quite surprised and dismayed," Young said Monday. "We have asked the publisher for clarification and reversal of this action and are awaiting their response."

On Tuesday, Taylor & Francis confirmed it would reverse the decision and allow the paper to proceed to publication. “In this instance, our company policy on international trade sanctions was applied. This policy is in place to ensure compliance with laws and regulations in the U.K., U.S., European Union, and United Nations jurisdictions,” the publisher said in a statement.

“However, we have also been actively reviewing how this policy should apply to research publishing. This is in order to ensure its application does not contravene academic freedom or editorial independence, whilst still ensuring we comply with all relevant international laws. Because this policy has been under review, we believe it is only fair to reverse this decision and reinstate the paper in question, so it can proceed to publication. We apologize for any upset this has caused and are in touch with the authors of this paper and the journal editor.”

December 12, 2018

A series of written threats, some accompanied by bigoted and anti-Semitic symbols, has prompted California State University at Northridge to offer all final exams today in alternative formats such that students do not need to come to campus. The option will also be available for finals later in the week. Some of the threats referred to a mass shooting to take place today.

Dianne F. Harrison, president at Northridge, in a message to the campus said that the options were being offered to help students, not out of the view that anyone is in danger. "While law enforcement does not believe there is an imminent threat to campus, I recognize the extreme stress and anxiety the recent threats of violence have caused our community," she said.

December 12, 2018

The University of Michigan will close its Confucius Institute next year when the current agreement governing the institute expires.

“This transition is driven by a desire to more broadly include the work of exploring and studying Chinese visual and performing arts within U-M’s regular academic and cultural units,” James Holloway, Michigan's vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs, said in an announcement. Michigan said programming at the Confucius Institute will continue through June of next year.

The Confucius Institutes -- Chinese-government funded centers of language and cultural education housed on about 100 U.S. university campuses -- have come under increased scrutiny over the last few years as a number of political figures have called for their closure. Chief among the critics is U.S. senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who has characterized the institutes as part of a broader effort by the Chinese government to influence American academia and stifle critical analysis of China's history and politics.

Criticism has also come from within academe. The American Association of University Professors has recommended that universities should renegotiate their agreements to ensure academic control of the institutes and academic freedom for all instructors or otherwise cease their involvement. The National Association of Scholars published a report last year recommending closure of the institutes and finding that in hosting them "universities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy."

Supporters of the institutes say they provide valuable resources to offer Chinese language and cultural programming, and that the concerns about academic freedom and institutional autonomy are unfounded or overstated.

Other American and Canadian universities that have moved to close their Confucius Institutes for various reasons include the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University, McMaster University and the Universities of North Florida and West Florida. In April the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system announced the closure of two Confucius Institutes -- one on A&M's main campus in College Station and the other at the Prairie View campus -- after two congressmen wrote an open letter describing the institutes as "a threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda." The letter from the two congressmen, Representatives Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, and Michael McCaul, a Republican, referenced comments from the Federal Bureau of Investigation director, Christopher Wray, who said in February that the FBI is concerned about the Confucius Institutes and has "developed appropriate investigative steps" in relation to them.

December 12, 2018

Master's degree programs have grown more popular, enroll more diverse students and are increasingly offered online, according to a new analysis from the Urban Institute. They're also getting more expensive, with net prices having risen faster for master's degrees than bachelor's degrees.

About 785,000 master's degrees were awarded in the U.S. during the 2015-16 academic year, a rate of about two master's for every five bachelor's degrees awarded, according to the analysis, which was authored by Kristin Blagg, a research associate in the institute's education policy program.

Over the past two decades, master's programs gradually have enrolled a larger share of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, the share of black and Hispanic students has nearly doubled over that period, to 25 percent in 2016 from 14 percent in 1996. During the same time, master's programs themselves have gotten more diverse, the analysis found, with more specialized offerings.

The rate of enrollment in online master's courses or programs has increased substantially since 2000, and is more common than among bachelor's degree programs. The analysis found that 31 percent of students enrolled in master's degree tracks in 2016 reported that their program was entirely online, with 21 percent reporting that they took some (but not all) classes online. In contrast, 12 percent of bachelor's degree students were enrolled in fully online programs, and 31 percent reported taking some online courses. (See chart, below.)

Online education may be particularly well suited for students in master's programs, according to the analysis, because these students tend to be proactive and self-directed learners who are more likely to be educated and employed.

"Although the broader completion, labor market, and borrowing outcomes of students who enrolled in online master’s programs are still unknown, master’s students would likely have better outcomes from enrolling in online education than students who take up noncredit or undergraduate online programs," Blagg wrote.

Prices are outpacing the popularity of master's degrees, however, as tuition and fees for full-time master's students rose by 79 percent during the last 20 years, compared to a 47 percent increase for full-time bachelor's students.

The analysis said the U.S. Congress should consider borrowing patterns for master's programs as they seek to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which is the law that governs federal financial aid.

"Specifically, policy makers may want to develop a better understanding of lending outcomes for master’s students and whether students in these programs can repay their loans," said Blagg. "Policy makers should seek more concrete estimates of the returns to different master’s degree fields, particularly newer programs, and compare these with the program prices."

December 12, 2018

Three Ohio community colleges that have adopted the City University of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs initiative have seen increases in semester-to-semester persistence rates as well as graduation-rate bumps ranging from 7.9 percent to 19.1 percent.

MDRC, a nonprofit research group, studied two-year results from an evaluation of the program and released the findings today. Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cuyahoga Community College and Lorain County Community College created ASAP on their own campuses four years ago.

ASAP students were nine percentage points more likely to remain enrolled from semester to semester compared to their peers. These students also earned two additional credits per semester compared to their peers, according to the study.

December 12, 2018

The Higher Learning Commission, which is the largest regional accrediting agency, is seeking to change the conversation around defining student success for today's learners. With the release of a position paper, the first of three HLC plans to release on the issue in coming months, the accreditor argued that "current discussions and measures of student success are based on a construct that does not represent students now enrolled in U.S. postsecondary education institutions." The paper was written by a group of experts convened by the accreditor. The Lumina Foundation contributed funding for the project.

In particular, HLC said the focus on completion too often ignores individual students' intent or educational goals. And currently used completion metrics and approaches tend to privilege certain types of learners, by failing to directly address barriers nontraditional students in particular tend to face, or their priorities. This approach also undervalues certain types of institutions and programs. For example, HLC said community and technical colleges typically do not fare as well as four-year institutions on completion metrics because most of their students are working adults and not first-time, full-time ones.

A more flexible student success framework, with students at its center, would include measures of "attainment of learning outcomes, personal satisfaction and goal/intent attainment, job placement and career advancement, civic and life skills, social and economic well-being, and commitment to lifelong learning," the paper said.

December 12, 2018

The federal government, states and accreditors should standardize how they calculate job placement numbers for higher ed programs, according to a new report from the Institute for College Access and Success, a progressive group that focuses on affordability and access in higher education.

In the report, released Tuesday, the group finds that the employment metrics used by various entities have created a patchwork of data that makes meaningful comparison of programs nearly impossible. TICAS recommends that the federal government take the lead in standardizing job placement rates and that new investments be made in state databases that can be used to verify outcomes at higher ed programs.

December 12, 2018

A large and growing share of job candidates are assessed directly by potential employers on job-related competencies, experts from Ithaka S+R write in a new report. This practice allows employers to supplement or even skip traditional hiring criteria, including the focus on college credentials.

The report attempts to document and evaluate a "wave of rapid innovation" in pre-employment assessment. It found that, because of the perceived gap between job candidates' competencies and employers' needs, some employers are beginning to distrust traditional "signaling credentials" such as college degrees, industry association endorsements and state licensures.

Other major themes the researchers identified include:

  • Third-party providers are rapidly entering this new, technology-driven market and providing new assessment methods.
  • The marketplace is flooded, and choosing an assessment technology can be a burden.
  • Incompatibility of content and software across assessments and employers' human resources systems present barriers to the broad-based and efficient use of direct prehire assessments.
  • Intermediaries, including higher education administrators and industry association officials, often are out of touch with new methodologies used by employers and assessment providers.
  • Emerging partnerships involving several players in the ecosystem that provide integrated, multimethod assessment strategies are best equipped to successfully measure and develop job candidates' skills.

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