Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

March 30, 2009

As Congress prepares to take up their 2010 budget blueprints, supporters and critics of President Obama's proposal to eliminate the Family Federal Education Loan program are ramping up their arguments for and against the plan. The Consumer Bankers Association has attracted more than 4,000 college financial aid administrators, parents and loan industry officials as signers of a petition asking lawmakers to sustain the competition between the lender-based guaranteed loan and the competing direct loan programs. The heads of more than a dozen state associations of financial aid administrators also have written letters opposing the plan. The National Direct Student Loan Coalition, meanwhile, sent their own letter to members of Congress arguing why the president's plan deserves their support, focusing on the fact that it will allow lawmakers to use $94 billion in projected savings from the changes to help increase grant and other funds for students.

March 30, 2009

Yet more evidence has emerged of the impact of pharmaceutical industry support for medical education. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the differences between medical continuing education offered online by the University of Wisconsin for doctors to fulfill their continuing education obligations. The courses that receive financial support from the drug companies are free, and appear to suggest courses of action for patients that would involve the drug companies' products. The courses that don't receive financial support require students to pay a fee.

March 30, 2009

Valparaiso University, in Indiana, has removed a lesbian student from a seat on student government that is designated for minority students, Chicago Public Radio reported. The student said that it was appropriate for her to run for the position, since gay and lesbian students are in the minority, but the university maintains that the position is intended only for students in racial and ethnic minority groups.

March 30, 2009

Flooding of the Red River has led several colleges to close for most or all of the coming week. The closures are both to ensure safety and to permit many students and faculty members to help with sandbagging and other efforts to minimize flood damage. Among institutions affected: Concordia College, Minnesota State University at Moorhead, North Dakota State University and the University of Mary.

March 27, 2009

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is proposing a surcharge on all students from family incomes of at least $80,000 to pay for needed services oriented toward undergraduate education that current levels of state support don't cover. The Madison Initiative for Undergraduates would pay for 75 additional faculty slots, plus improved student services. "Both cost and quality are important to our students and their families," said Biddy Martin, the chancellor, in explaining the concept. In materials explaining the program, Madison officials noted that many students can't get into key courses for their majors -- so the lack of faculty positions is forcing them to take longer to graduate. The extra payments -- which would be on top of any tuition increases approved for the university system -- would start at $250 for Wisconsin residents and $750 for out-of-state residents, and would grow over four years to $1,000 for residents and $3,000 for non-residents. An editorial in The Badger Herald, a student newspaper, raised some questions about the plan, but also praised it as "a necessary and dynamic step for UW and one that, even in the face of a harsh recession, will lead to a much-needed boost in the quality and accessibility of our university."

March 27, 2009

Russel Ogden will be able to resume his research on assisted suicide, according to a settlement announced by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Ogden, a sociologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has written about assisted suicides and observed many of them. An ethics review board at his university had approved the research, but Kwantlen ordered him to stop any studies that involved observing suicides. While suicide is not illegal in Canada, assisting a suicide is illegal, and the university has equated Ogden's proposal to observe assisted suicides with assisting suicides himself. Many professors in Canada backed him, arguing that observing something is not the same as endorsing or participating in it -- and noting that many sociology studies involve observing illegal activities. The Canadian Association of University Teachers set up a committee to study the matter last year. The association's announcement of a settlement in the case said that Ogden is now permitted to engage in the research approved by the university's ethics review board.

March 27, 2009

Carol Vallone, who was CEO of WebCT before it was acquired by Blackboard, has become acting CEO of Wimba, a company that focuses on software that promotes group learning in higher education (and elementary and secondary education). Vallone, who has been on the Wimba board, said that no decision had been made on whether she might become CEO permanently. While Vallone declined to discuss specific goals for the company, she said she believed its services could be particularly helpful as colleges attract a more diverse range of students. And while Wimba has significant sales outside of the United States, in Australia and Britain, she said she believed there was "a lot of room around the globe" for international growth.

March 27, 2009

The most important fact about the preliminary data the U.S. Education Department released Thursday about student loan default rates is that the rate at which borrowers whose loans went into repayment in 2007 defaulted rose sharply, to 6.9 percent from 2006's 5.2 percent. That would seem to be a clear sign that the economic downturn is increasingly taking its toll, a worrisome trend from a public policy standpoint. However, in the highly politicized environment of our nation's capital, the department's release of the numbers drew attention for other reasons, most notably because the agency -- for the first time ever -- broke the data down to highlight the differences between how borrowers fared in the government's two competing loan programs, showing that borrowers were likelier to default in the lender-based guaranteed loan program, 7.3 percent to 5.3 percent. (A department official told The Wall Street Journal that it had done so in response to a records request by the newspaper.) Supporters of the guaranteed loan program questioned the validity of the data, noting that it appeared to significantly underreport the number of loans processed in the lender-based program and failed to note that borrowers in the direct loan program can go as much as two months longer before being declared in default. The reason for their suspicion, of course, is that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have proposed eliminating the guaranteed loan program as soon as next year.

March 27, 2009

Opponents of teaching evolution failed Thursday to require Texas schools to teach the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory, but they succeeded in votes requiring specific parts of evolutionary theory to be questioned in classrooms, The Dallas Morning News reported. The board is holding a series of votes this week on science requirements, and the evolution votes are considered crucial by scientists nationally because of the Texas-sized impact the state's education board has on the way textbooks are written. The board split evenly, 7 to 7, and thus failed to require schools to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories -- a requirement widely viewed as a tool for forcing schools to imply that evolution isn't the scientific fact that it is. But while defenders of evolution won the big vote, they then lost several votes on subparts of evolutionary theory. The board agreed to require that students be taught about the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of common ancestry and natural selection. With more votes today, science groups hope to reverse some of those decisions. The blog of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that fights social conservatives in Texas, characterized Thursday's actions this way: "This morning the board slammed the door on bringing creationism into classrooms through phony 'weaknesses' arguments. But then board members turned around and threw open all the windows to pseudoscientific nonsense attacking core concepts like common descent and natural selection."

March 27, 2009

TIAA-CREF on Thursday announced a tougher position on several companies that have been accused of supporting the authorities who encourage the genocide in Darfur. Some groups have pushed TIAA-CREF to immediately sell such holdings, arguing that genocide is such a terrible wrong that any holdings in such companies are immoral. TIAA-CREF didn't go that far. But in an unprecedented step, it announced that it was giving selected companies nine months to show that they were taking "positive and meaningful" steps to stop the genocide. If they don't do so, or fail to meet with TIAA-CREF officials, their stocks will be sold. TIAA-CREF's statement stressed that it considered the Darfur situation to be unusual, and that the company did not anticipate an activist role as shareholders generally. "We recognize that genocide and crimes against humanity, whether in Darfur or elsewhere, require a higher standard of response," the statement said. "While we believe that attempts to use our standing as shareholders through quiet diplomacy is the most effective way to influence corporate policies and practices, in cases where companies may substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity, we may intensify engagement, raise its visibility or limit its duration if we believe that such action is necessary to cause companies to improve their stance. Even in these cases, we believe that divestment should be considered as a last resort, only after efforts to pressure companies to revisit and change their policies have failed." TIAA-CREF officials also stressed that the companies linked to Darfur represent a minute share of overall holdings.

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