A challenge to college presidents to fight for low-income students (essay)

To: All 2,000 delegates at this weekend's annual meeting of the American Council on Education

Your assignment for this annual meeting: make history for low-income students. What proposals can you have live and moving by the time the lights go out Tuesday there at the Washington Marriott Marquis?

No, we may not rest on the restore summer Pell idea. That’s paying a fine. We should not have lost summer Pell in the first place.

To inspire you, to offer conversation starters, I’ve contacted for you as many higher ed leaders and thought leaders as I could to offer my spotlight for their best ideas, right here, in this obscure column.

Their ideas:

  • Equitable funding through state and federal litigation, as in K-12.
  • Admit once and for all the greater needs of low-income students and stop providing these students with less funding per student than elementary school students.
  • A student hope survey each semester, with help for those without.
  • Much more day care and early childhood education, essential for children and parents, especially those who are college students.
  • Free lunch and bus/subway passes for the college students who received these in K-12.
  • Expand Pell to include more job training; measure college success with job placement in the field of study.

One of ACE’s plenary speakers, Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute, said that the power shift in Washington cannot sideline federal action to improve opportunity for low- and middle-income students. “To be effective, we have to think about what kinds of policy changes could really have an impact on the prospects for upward mobility. That means not just asking for more money, but ensuring that government, institutions and students use the funds equitably and efficiently.”

Baum looks back to the start for all students. She would start “by ensuring high-quality, affordable day care and early childhood education, so parents, including student parents, know their children are well cared for.”

Delegates: find Sandy Baum. Bring sharp pencils. Make a plan for better day care.

Start with the tough end of the question. Start the discussion with the people around you right now and in every hallway and by every coffeepot. The harder end of the question? Example: “To have expanded day care for all Pell students who are parents, we would have to …”

For solutions, I mean ones that take as a given the current difficult federal budget situation, with a proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending and cuts to all other agencies. Think! My teaching self believes in every one of you. Yes, you can. Remember, you are the stars of what you yourselves call the greatest higher education system in the world.

Who are these low-income students? I mean the students, grasping for a postsecondary credential, who may not today, Friday, have a full weekend’s worth of food to eat.

I mean the legal immigrant whose trip from a distant continent to my windowless basement office to edit a transfer essay included a stop in a six-foot-square underground jail cell, with more than a dozen other prisoners crammed in. (Naming even the country could put the student and his/her family at risk.)

With President Trump proposing a $54 billion increase in defense spending at the expense of other agencies, we need as many approaches for these students as we can field. I have gathered plausible ideas from thoughtful realist higher ed leaders I know. Grab and improve on these ideas with your neighbors as you wait for an ACE session to start, as you file in out and out of plenaries, as you wait for coffee or sit down for superb free meals that many low-income students will not have during this meeting.

Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College and a national champion for low-income students, suggested judicial remedies, the long-haul chess game of desegregation litigation such as Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took to prepare for 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown vs. Board of Education. Mellow today shares the same reasoning as Marshall did then for turning to the courts: legislative strategies are not working.

“In the U.S., justice has often been found in the courts, and it might be time to seek justice for low-income students that way,” Mellow said.

Delegates: send an Uber and invite the civil rights lawyer John Brittain at University of the District of Columbia to join you. Find Gail Mellow. Sit down and stay seated until you have a plaintiff, funding and a litigation strategy.

“Hope is important,” said Hal Plotkin, an Obama deputy under secretary of education and a community college graduate himself. “Students who have hope are more likely to move through adversity. The absence of hope is self-fulfilling. Why don’t we measure hope? We could ask students questions that are about hope but grounded in reality. If I were a college president, I would want to know if my students were mostly hopeful about their futures or mostly hopeless -- and what the trends are/were.” Plotkin is now senior open policy fellow for Creative Commons USA.

Richard Kahlenberg and the Century Foundation have created a new task force to take next steps from the foundation’s excellent 2013 “Bridging the Higher Education Divide: The Report of the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges From Becoming Separate and Unequal.” The report stated again that in U.S. higher education the students with the highest need, most of whom are in community colleges, receive the least funding. This is at odds with much of the policy and practice for K-12.

More funding for high-need students in higher education? “The idea sounds pie in the sky, but Tennessee and other states are already moving in this direction, providing an 80 percent premium in funding to colleges that graduate Pell students,” said Kahlenberg. “What if that 80 percent principle was applied nationally?” The Century Foundation has funding from the William T. Grant Foundation to think through just this question. Delegates: find Rick Kahlenberg there and sign up for the task force.

Anthony P. Carnevale, also an ACE plenary speaker and research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, wonders if higher education in this environment needs to reconsider past objectives.

“Do we go whole hog on gainful employment?” Carnevale asked. “Completion is not enough. Graduates have to get a job.” As measures, he asks if new degree/certificate holders have an increase in wages in a job in the field of their training. Delegates: find Tony. Listen. With magnificent clarity and plenty of evidence, he this week opened my mind to this new-to-me idea.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, also author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream, restated her recommendation for a federal lunch program for the college students who were eligible for federal free and reduced-price lunch in K-12. Some studies indicate that more than 50 percent of low-income college students may be both food and housing insecure. Delegates: send an Uber to the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill and invite U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to join you. Scott already wants to put such a plan into the budget. Let Scott advise you on a relentless strategy in spite of Republican gloom.

Pam Y. Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, is advocating against student hunger with Goldrick-Rab, and sees every day both the benefits of proving food and the costs of student hunger. Bunker Hill (where I work) helps students enroll for and renew food stamps, has food available, and hosts a monthly food pantry for which the Greater Boston Food Bank delivers 5,000 pounds of groceries.

“Food, housing, transportation are essential to academic completion,” Eddinger said. “They are simply necessities. There are no silver bullets.”

Paying for this? Remember, we are a nation that is funding an unbudgeted $5 trillion war. For these low-income students? We can succeed.

Wick Sloane is an end user of a most highly selective higher education. Follow him on Twitter @WickSloane.

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New report says trustees have role to play in fighting BDS efforts on campus

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Report says movement to boycott represents challenge to academic freedom in the U.S., and urges trustees to take action. Critics say report is a challenge to academic freedom.

Professors Allege Discrimination, Retaliation and Hostile Climate at U Michigan

Two professors are suing the University of Michigan for discrimination based on race, gender and marital status and retaliation for voicing their concerns, among other counts. Their joint complaint, filed in a county court, alleges that the university’s stated commitments to diversity are superficial, and that institutional racism and a hostile campus climate for underrepresented faculty members and students of color persist. Scott Kurashige, a onetime tenured professor of American culture at Michigan, says he was terminated from his position as director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American studies program in 2014 after asking his dean for equitable retention packages for three faculty members. Eventually, he says, he was forced out of his faculty position in a campaign of retaliation for complaining about institutional equity issues.

Kurashige's wife, Emily Lawsin, a longtime lecturer in American culture and women’s studies at Michigan, says she was laid off with no prior notice in 2015, while she was on protected leave caring for their baby with Down syndrome. Lawsin fought the layoff, but was again barred from teaching this year, she says. Both professors are requesting immediate reinstatement, damages and injunctive relief to stop the alleged discrimination on campus.

Rick Fitzgerald, university spokesperson, said via email that Michigan “will vigorously defend the university against this lawsuit,” and that it’s already filed a motion to dismiss much of the complaint.

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Feds Release Financial Responsibility Scores

The U.S. Department of Education this week released the annual update of its financial responsibility test scores for private colleges, which is based on data from 2014-15. The 187 institutions that have a failing score -- most of which are small and either private nonprofit or for-profit -- will lose access to federal financial aid without a provisional certification from the department. The department may also require colleges with low or failing scores to take out a letter of credit or be subject to a sanction called heightened cash monitoring.

The test was designed to keep tabs on the fiscal stability of colleges, with an eye toward preventing financial aid from going to institutions that may shut down abruptly. For example, Dowling College, which shut down last year, has a failing score on the new list.

However, many private college officials have for years criticized the department's methodology for the test. They say the scoring system fails to use generally accepted accounting practices, is backward looking and does not capture the complexity of a college budget. For example, a decline in a college endowment's investment value is counted as an operating loss.

The department's Office of Inspector General recently agreed with some of that criticism, noting in an audit released last week that the test's methodology should be improved.

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Study confirms alcohol and marijuana linked with decline in student grades

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Regular drinking isn’t associated with meaningfully lower GPAs, study finds, but those who use alcohol and marijuana do see a decline.

How administrators can be both academic leaders and find time for themselves (essay)

It’s possible to be an excellent administrative leader and still find time for leisure, health and social connections, write Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist, and here’s how.

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How to increase admissions in today's difficult environment (essay)

Back in 2001, I worked in the New York University admissions office. We were very well positioned to have a terrific incoming class.

Then Sept. 11 happened.

I remember huddling with my colleagues, time and time again, trying to work our way through this unprecedented, impossibly challenging year with fewer applications and distraught, distracted applicants.

All of our projections, plans and benchmarks were thrown into disarray.

The uncertainty of the aftermath of Sept. 11 vexed us all fall. How could we chart a new course when one day our troops were being deployed and the next we had anthrax peppering the desks of journalists just up the road from our campus?

But as winter turned to spring, the world seemed to settle down a bit, and we were able to get students focused on filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms and visiting our campus. We landed our class that year, but my colleagues and I were well aware that, had Sept. 11 been April 11, we never would have been successful.

Fast forward 16 years: now, as a managing director of Royall & Company, my conversations with enrollment leaders these past months have reminded me of that long fall of 2001. Our campus partners are filled with concerns about their enrollment and revenue projections, and yet many are also confounded by the unpredictability of what might happen tomorrow.

Two major themes have emerged this year. First, early FAFSA activity has changed students’ behavior and has made forecasting enrollment outcomes extremely difficult. Second, the political world has many confronting potential losses of revenue from international students and changes to federal student aid.

Let’s take a look at those challenges and potential shortfalls and consider a few tactics that could help those of you involved in college and university admissions to mitigate them.

Forecasting Enrollment Outcomes

Ever since the FAFSA filing window widened, the volume of activity has surpassed most enrollment professionals’ estimations. Because filing a FAFSA has traditionally been a strong indicator of student intent, this year’s activity is difficult to read. Some colleges and universities exceeded their final FAFSA volumes before Jan. 1, while others are seeing comparable activity to last year.

What to make of this? It’s really hard to tell. One thing is certain -- you will need to think carefully about how much weight you’re ascribing to the FAFSA in your predictions this year. Other factors, such as campus visits and your track record with a student’s high school, are likely to be more stable indicators this year and perhaps worthy of additional weight.

International Students

On just about every campus, international students bring more revenue per person than traditional domestic students. With growing evidence that international students are less willing -- and, crucially, less able in the wake of the new administration’s policies -- to travel to the United States, enrollment teams will have to work creatively to replace their lost revenue.

Whether international students make up 2 percent or 10 percent of your class, you’ll need to add more than one domestic student for each international student you think might not show up at freshman orientation, given the revenue differential. And you should probably also factor in some retention challenges, too. Some Royall & Company partner institutions have expressed concerns that current international students may choose to depart because of potential limitations on travel or fears triggered by the changing tenor of American political rhetoric. And some paranoia on this front is certainly warranted.

Federal Aid Support

My colleagues on campuses are asking important -- and alarming -- questions: What would be the budget or retention impact of a $1,000 cut in the top Pell Grant? What would happen if Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants went away? What if the interest subsidy on student loans disappears?

We already know that even students with a grade point average above 3.0 who lose $1,000 to $1,500 in financial aid are 2.5 percent more likely to drop out of college than their peers who have little or no change in aid.

In the past, we might never have imagined a world where all of this could happen quickly. But we’re in a different climate today. Higher education’s budget is large; it is an easy target for cost-containment conversations in Washington. If you haven’t started thinking about a contingency plan on your campus, you should do so right away. Confront your toughest question: What additional enrollment revenues would you need to offset these potentialities?

What to Do?

We cannot predict when -- if ever -- enrollment teams will regain traction on solid, familiar ground.

In the interim, however, here are a few established strategies that can help you find your students and meet your enrollment and revenue goals even in this unpredictable time.

Build your bandwidth. Let me assure you that it’s not too late to grow your applicant pool. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that late engagement of high school seniors (even into March and April) is possible. Scour your FAFSA applications for potential stealth applicants -- students who don’t show up in a college’s inquiry pool -- and proactively prod them to apply with simple, well-timed messages. And remember that transfer students from community colleges are an often undertapped population of late applicants.

Research by our parent company, EAB (formerly the Education Advisory Board), a best-practices firm working with more than 1,100 educational institutions, indicates that transfer students are less expensive to recruit and enroll at 10 to 20 percent higher tuition rates, because most colleges allocate more of their tuition discounting funds for first-year students. Transfer students are also 5 to 20 percent more likely to graduate than students recruited directly out of high school.

Persist. According to Royall & Company testing, 32 percent of all deposits come from students who respond after your fifth message. So don’t worry about annoying students. If they aren’t interested, they’ll let you know. The ones that you’re not hearing back from might be just as preoccupied with the changing dynamics in Washington and across the globe as you are. Keep at it. Target the students who started but did not complete their applications. Strategic text message nudges that prodded noncompleters to finish either their Common Application or an institution’s custom application increased response rates by 63 percent -- a boost that carried through to the admission stage.

And always keep students at the center of your messages. Royall & Company tests show student-focused messaging can result in a 50 percent increase in response rate over institution-centered copy. Student-centered copy, for example, would tell prospective students that they can be the architect of their own education, as opposed to talking about the institution’s flexible curriculum.

Engage parents. Don’t forget about the parents of your prospective students. In Royall & Company surveys, parents consistently emerge as the most influential figures in students’ college decision making, significantly more so than high school and college counselors. Our research shows that students who provide a parent’s email address to a college or university during the recruitment phase are 52 percent more likely to apply to the institution. Parents can also be your best partner in driving the activity you most care about. Our tests show that parents have a four times higher response rate to FAFSA communications than students.

But don’t just ask students to involve their parents. Think about a parent recruitment strategy that reaches out to prospective parents directly. Enlist some of your current students’ parents to call or host informational meetings for the parents of prospective students. You will most likely find that parents are eager to help you and will welcome the positive, hopeful vision of their child’s future that is the consistent core of every institution’s mission.

Faced with new levels and kinds of enrollment risk, I encourage admissions teams to seek out these and other tested, effective enrollment strategies. A focus on data and research helped my colleagues and me in 2001, and I believe it can also help institutions in 2017 and beyond.

What’s more: I believe higher education is in a better spot now. The situation in 2001 was thankfully fairly limited. But today there are thousands of institutions coping with ambiguities we’ve not seen, nor could anticipate, before. As a result, there are many lessons to be learned from across institutions, and I am constantly surprised by how many colleges and universities are willing to share what works, with us and with one another. No institution should feel the need to go it alone.

Peter Farrell is a managing director at Royall & Company, a division of EAB focused on data-enabled enrollment management.

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Facing scrutiny, college sports organizations ramp up lobbying efforts

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In December, an association representing the country's top athletics directors created a political action committee. It joins the National Collegiate Athletic Association's own lobbying efforts, which have more than doubled in the past five years.

Duke Graduate Employees Withdraw Union Petition

Graduate student employees at Duke University on Tuesday withdrew their petition to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union. The union organizing committee in a statement said the move was “not a decision to quit fighting — rather, it is a recognition that the source of our strength is not lawyers or litigation, but our collective knowledge, power and experience as graduate student workers.” 

Vote counting for a recent union election at Duke was delayed over some 500 challenged ballots. The preliminary tally, not counting those disputed votes, was 398 for and 691 against unionization. 

The National Labor Relations Board decided in August that graduate student employees on private campuses are entitled to collective bargaining. Since then, a union vote at Harvard University proved inconclusive, while a majority of voting departments at Yale University approved "micro-unit" union bids. Students at Columbia University and Loyola University at Chicago voted to form unions.

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President of Calvin College writes a response (essay)

A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed on Calvin College by Susan Resneck Pierce was disappointing to me on numerous levels. It characterizes Calvin as an academic community indifferent to teaching traditional academic skills such as critical thinking. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Unfortunately, Resneck Pierce selectively pulled one element without context from our Expanded Statement of Mission but failed to even reference the actual Calvin mission statement, which is to “equip students to think deeply, act justly and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” This selective cherry-picking was not present as she described the mission statements of other institutions in her piece.

In addition, while it is certainly true that Calvin seeks to ensure that the values that guide our teaching and scholarship will be Christian, at Calvin we also contend that it is possible to be simultaneously grounded in a Christian worldview and capable of critical thinking. A recent example might serve to illustrate my point.

In a March 1, 2017, piece on Calvin on The Atlantic, Jane Zwart, a Calvin English professor, said, “When you hear a phrase like ‘the kingdom of God’ around here, the point is that the world belongs to God -- which is not the same thing as the world belonging to those of us who believe in God, to those of us who are Christians … the kingdom of God does not thrive on exclusion; it chokes on exclusion … It thrives when we remember that Jesus wanted to make every last one of us a sibling and that, in consequence, we need to treat every person as a sister or a brother.” Calvin is not perfect, but Zwart gives a passionate account of our aspirations.

Baylor historian Thomas S. Kidd believes that “Christian colleges and universities may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.” In the midst of a season of tremendous uncertainty and considerable political polarization, this is more important than ever, and at Calvin we believe we possess an opportunity in our teaching, scholarship and service to model civic and public discourse that meets arrogance with humility, hatred with love, bluster with wisdom, falsehood with truth, injustice with justice, ignorance with learning.

That none of the depth and nuance of Calvin came out in the recent Inside Higher Ed piece is unfortunate, so we think it’s important to try to create a fuller picture of the college. You are also welcome to visit Calvin anytime to learn even more.

Michael K. Le Roy is president of Calvin College.

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