Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

November 30, 2018

Online learning provider Udacity has laid off nearly a quarter of its staff members.

Sebastian Thrun, the company's co-founder, said in a written statement that Udacity made the “painful decision to part ways with 125 employees in the U.S. and Brazil” in order to “realign” the company’s focus.

VentureBeat reports that 70 staff members will be laid off in Brazil and Udacity is closing its São Paulo office. The remainder of the cuts will come from U.S.-based departments that work on course content creation.

Udacity plans to “increase investment in growth areas like enterprise and career development,” said Thrun. The company's board voted in favor of the reorganization last month, shortly after former CEO Vishal Makhijani stepped down.

The company earlier this year quietly eliminated a program to give Nanodegree Plus students their money back if they can’t find a job.

November 30, 2018

Today on the Academic Minute, Alexandra Kosiba, researcher in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, explores why red spruce trees have made a rebound in the northeastern U.S. after years of decline. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

November 29, 2018

Elizabeth Midlarsky, a Jewish professor who is a scholar of the Holocaust, found two large swastikas spray-painted in her office at Teachers College, Columbia University, on Wednesday, The New York Daily News reported. The slur "yid" was also spray-painted. Thomas Bailey, president of Teachers College, said that the institution is working with police to find out who vandalized the office. Bailey sent a letter to the campus in which he said, "We unequivocally condemn any expression of hatred, which has no place in our society. We are outraged and horrified by this act of aggression and use of this vile anti-Semitic symbol against a valued member of our community."

November 29, 2018

A federal judge approved a settlement Wednesday that erases more than $500 million in student debt held by former ITT Technical Institute students.

The settlement also returns $3 million that was paid by students since the company filed for bankruptcy in 2016.

The students were represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard University. They alleged that ITT, a since shuttered for-profit institution, violated consumer protection laws, engaged in deceptive recruiting practices and enrolled unqualified students to generate revenue from federal and private student loans.

ITT closed 130 campuses in September 2016, two weeks after the U.S. Department of Education prohibited the institution from enrolling new students using federal financial aid. The chain also faced lawsuits from state and federal investigators before the shutdown.

November 29, 2018

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the patent-licensing organization for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was ordered to pay $32 million to Washington University in St. Louis after a judge ruled that WARF violated a royalties contract between the two universities, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The two universities had collaborated on medical research in the 1990s and developed a treatment for kidney disease that WARF worked to patent in exchange for a larger share of the royalties. Washington University claimed that WARF misled it by undervaluing the patent.

"The court recognized WARF’s failure to properly value the co-owned patent and the contributions of Washington University’s researcher, and to share critical information with Washington University," a spokesperson for Washington University told the Post-Dispatch. "We remain disappointed that WARF would not negotiate a resolution and that we had to resolve this matter through the court system."

November 29, 2018

A newly released report from a 13-member task force of academics and experts from think tanks calls to "reform higher education funding to upend the existing skew toward traditional academic education," and to instead allocate more federal financial aid to career education programs.

Opportunity America, a conservative nonprofit group, led the project, which the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution cosponsored. A resulting 136-page report proposed what it calls "bipartisan, budget-neutral recommendations to restore opportunity for working-class communities amid changing demographics."

The report includes several proposals related to higher education, including a call to discourage employers from requiring college degrees for jobs that do not require them. It also backs emerging forms of "flexible" postsecondary education and training, including online and hybrid programs, competency-based education, coding boot camps, training by companies, and apprenticeships. Data-driven quality control is needed for these and other federally subsidized education programs, the task force said, recommending experimentation with alternative forms of accreditation, including outcomes-based and industry-driven options. It also called for removing the ban on a federal student tracking system.

On federal aid, the report said only about 20 percent of the total amount spent on Pell Grants goes toward occupational education. It said several existing federal programs could be trimmed or eliminated -- such as loans for graduate students and tax credits for upper-middle-class students and families -- to redirect more aid toward career education, including for possible short-term Pell Grants, a move that has some bipartisan support in Congress.

"Our vision: low-income and working-class students should be able to use Pell Grants and indeed student loans for noncredit occupational instruction at community colleges, MOOCs, coding boot camps and in-house training offered by employers, among other options, as long as offerings meet with nationally agreed-upon standards of quality assurance," the report said. "We understand the wisdom in starting slowly and carefully, with one or more federal pilots. But we see no reason to hold back in the design of these experiments. This challenge will not be met with timid half measures."

November 29, 2018

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's former top student loan official said Wednesday he was launching an organization to advocate for student borrowers across the country.

Seth Frotman, the former student loans ombudsman at CFPB, publicly resigned from the agency in August and accused top officials in the Trump administration of abandoning responsibilities to consumers.

Frotman said the new organization, the Student Borrower Protection Center, will push for state and city leaders to add new consumer protections for borrowers. And he said the group will campaign for California lawmakers specifically to pass a borrower bill of rights.

November 29, 2018

Eastern Michigan University has hired a new coach and will reinstate its women’s tennis team after a judge ruled that cutting the team violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination, the Detroit Free Press reported. Two former athletes sued for the university for violating Title IX after it eliminated the softball, men’s swimming and diving, women’s tennis, and wrestling teams last spring due to budget cuts.

November 29, 2018

Today on the Academic Minute, Loren Toussaint, professor of psychology at Luther College, explains how forgiving yourself and others can lead to a more harmonious life. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

November 28, 2018

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education, warned that the growing $1.5 trillion federal student loan balance is a crisis that demands the attention of Congress, colleges, students and parents.

Her speech was to the annual training conference for the department's office of Federal Student Aid, which manages the student loan portfolio. DeVos said just 24 percent of borrowers currently are paying down both principal and interest on their federal loans. "The student loan program is not only burying students in debt, it is also burying taxpayers and it's stealing from future generations," she said, according to her prepared remarks.

DeVos blamed the Obama administration for contributing to the rapid growth of student borrowing, specifically referencing Obama's 2010 move to end federally backed private lending and his emphasis on four-year college degrees. "The parade of programs, repayment options and complex rules serves no one well," said DeVos. "The government monopoly has proven costly to taxpayers and it hasn't been a panacea for students either."

One prominent conservative expert on student aid, however, disagreed with her attempt to link the switch to direct lending to increased debt levels. Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, in a tweet called DeVos's argument "completely illogical" and "utterly false." Delisle linked to a 2017 paper he said rebutted that myth.

In order to bring student borrowing down to more sustainable levels, DeVos called for more support for a "multitude of pathways" for students, for unleashing innovation and for better, more accessible information about higher education programs.

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