Catharine Hill announced Tuesday that she plans to step down next June as president of Vassar College. She will have served 11 years in the position. Hill has been a leading advocate for spending more money on low-income students. In 2007, early in her tenure, Hill led Vassar to a return to need-blind admissions, a commitment some wealthier colleges have not made. The policy -- and a range of other initiatives -- has paid off in diversifying Vassar's student body. Currently, nearly 25 percent of Vassar students are eligible for Pell Grants, up 11 percentage points since 2008. Vassar has also seen gains in the enrollments of minority students, first-generation students and veterans.
A coalition of consumer groups, legal aid organizations and unions object to the state of New York joining an agreement that would change how colleges offering distance education courses in the state would be regulated. As coalition members asserted in an Inside Higher Ed article, the state would be ceding its authority to other states. Students would be left with no protection from predatory colleges, and it would make it easier for “bad actors to take advantage of students and harder for states to crack down on them.”
That all sounds ominous. It would be, if it were true.
Even in the digital era, the regulation of educational institutions is left to each state. The resulting array of requirements confuses both students and institutional faculty and staff. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) was created to apply consistent review standards across the states. An institution approved in its home state is eligible to enroll students (within limits) in any other SARA member state. As of this writing, 36 states have joined in a little over two years. That number may approach 45 by the end of 2016.
SARA means now there is a consistently applied set of regulations over distance education when students from one state take courses from an institution in another SARA state. Chief critic Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former official at the U.S. Department of Education, cites Iowa as proof that “some states have discovered they can’t add more qualifications,” as if that were a surprise. Reciprocity agreements depend upon consistency. If Iowa wishes to change a policy, there is a process for regulators in the state to suggest a change. States enter into the agreement openly knowing that consistency is a requirement.
Currently, many states -- notably including New York -- have no regulations in place to protect their in-state students who enroll in courses from many out-of-state colleges. SARA’s critics depict New York as “a national leader in protecting its citizens from unfair business practices.” If a college has no other physical presence in New York other than enrolling students in an online course, it is not regulated and those students are not protected. The state has not allocated any funds to regulate the estimated hundreds of colleges from throughout the country currently serving online students in the state. Asking each state to regulate the institutions headquartered in their state regardless of where they serve students is a much more reasonable solution. Put another way, SARA increases the amount of regulatory oversight of distance education, but does it in a manner more relevant to today’s economy.
To be fair, New York has been aggressive in pursuing bad actors in the for-profit education sector, as evidenced by its $10.25 million settlement with Career Education Corporation. It is worth noting, however, that the lawsuit was largely based on brick-and-mortar schools that have nothing to do with SARA. In addition, this action was brought by the New York attorney general’s office and was not the result of education-based regulation. There is a relevant section in the SARA policy stating that nothing precludes “a state from using its laws of general application to pursue action against an institution that violates those laws” and another stating that “nothing precludes the state in which the complaining person is located from also working to resolve the complaint.”
The reality of SARA hardly qualifies as “ceding the ability to guard its citizens against abusive practices,” as a Century Foundation letter objecting to New York signing the SARA agreement claims.
What would be lost if New York were not to sign the SARA agreement? There is certainly a downside for institutions offering distance education courses and programs for out-of-state students. It might surprise readers of the letter, but fully 70 percent of students who take all of their courses at a distance do so from public and nonprofit institutions. Institutions like Empire State College, a longtime leader in distance education that is part of the SUNY system. Furthermore, the large for-profit institutions referenced in the article have the budget and history of obtaining state-by-state approval already. It is the smaller-profile nonprofits that have the most difficulty in obtaining authorization to serve students in different states.
A reciprocity agreement between Massachusetts and Connecticut is cited as an alternative. As best we can tell, it allows each state to continue using its own current regulations. This is not reciprocity and does not improve the consumer protection landscape for students or institutions.
Were New York to avoid signing the agreement, students who live in the state would end up with fewer choices, primarily from fewer nonprofit institutions that can operate there. Under SARA, New York students actually would have more consumer protection than currently exists as well as regulatory support for any complaint process, including from in-state agencies. Additionally, states systematically working in concert through SARA will more quickly find and deal with institutions that treat students poorly. This is far better than hypothetical, unfunded regulatory oversight by New York trying to operate independently from any other state.
New York has the opportunity to sign an agreement that would expand the regulatory oversight of distance education programs, would leave the state with the same ability to go after bad actors as they have done in the past and would increase choices for resident students -- particularly working adults -- seeking to get a valuable degree that is only enabled by distance education. It would be a mistake to let a complaint based on hypotheticals and misrepresentations of reality derail this progress.
Phil Hill is co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, co-producer of e-Literate TV and partner at MindWires Consulting. Russ Poulin is director of policy and analysis at WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies), which is a division of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
Proposed rule changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are generating significant concern on college and university campuses across America, including mine. The U.S. Department of Labor recently sent those changes, which would raise the salary threshold for those employees who are guaranteed overtime pay from $23,660 to $50,440, to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for final review. If approved, they will have deleterious and perhaps even dire effects not only on higher education institutions but many of their employees as well.
As president of Thomas More College, a small faith-based college in Kentucky, I worry that the changes would take a grave toll on institutions like mine that are enrollment and tuition driven. They could also significantly limit opportunities for young people in our society to receive entry-level positions at our colleges and universities.
I understand the reasoning for the proposed changes and, in fact, I would love to be able to pay our employees more money. But this proposal is just too drastic in such a short period of time, and our institution simply can’t afford it.
I received my start as a volunteer football coach for my alma mater, Mercyhurst University, after receiving my law degree. I chose to forgo a lucrative legal career to pursue my passion of making a difference in the lives of young men in their formative years. My $20,000 salary during this time came from academic advising and work in residence life. From this position, I moved into different roles in student life, academic advising, recruiting and fund-raising. Those positions led me to my present post of college president at a college very similar to my alma mater. Because of that first job as a coach -- albeit at a low salary -- I was able to launch my career in higher education.
Yet the proposed changes would nullify such opportunities for thousands of people just starting out by essentially removing entry-level positions that recent college graduates rely on. With beginning base salaries of $50,440, employers nationwide, including colleges and universities, would have to hire workers with previous experience and a greater knowledge of the position than a first-time job applicant. In addition to the removal of entry-level positions, midrange positions would need salary adjustments as well, so that employees at that career level are not making less than those previously considered to be entry level. Such salary adjustments across the board would significantly pressure the budgets of virtually every academic institution.
I know firsthand that one department will be greatly affected: the athletics department. Colleges like mine do not have athletics simply because we enjoy them; we have them because they drive enrollment and are therefore necessary for our survival. Despite public belief that coaches of intercollegiate athletic teams earn huge salaries, most coaches are modestly compensated for jobs that often include weekends and nights. Coaches know this going into the position -- they accept relatively low salaries because they have an immense passion for the game and desire to mold student-athletes. Their passion for the sport and for the growth of students allows athletic programs to survive and thrive. The proposed changes would result in tough decisions having to be made, including the potential cutting of small-roster sports and other administrative positions within the department.
Various colleges and universities have already begun looking at the potential impacts the FLSA rule changes could have specifically on them. The state university system of Florida has concluded that the proposal will affect 6,500 workers to the tune of $62 million in increased budget expenditures. Indiana University similarly has found that budget increases would be upward of $15 million annually. Recently, while speaking at a conference with a human resources administrator at a large research institution, I learned that university leaders there have forecast an annual budgetary increase of $19 million.
These numbers are substantially larger than ours: we project our budget would increase by $1.4 million each year. But, given that is more than a 12 percent annual increase, the relative impact on our small college would be much more severe. An increase of that magnitude could potentially have catastrophic effects on us and other small institutions nationwide.
The basic fact is that colleges, especially small, enrollment-based institutions, will not be able to absorb the extremely large additional costs associated with the current proposal. It is thus crucial that the federal government consider reasonableness and time in developing the final rule. A more modest salary adjustment makes much more sense if colleges are to avoid untenable budget pressures and, in some cases, even financial collapse. A proverb elucidates this concept, saying, “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”
The proposals of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources and 18 other higher education groups that called for an increase to either $29,172 or $30,004 are much more realistic and reasonable. We need to raise salaries incrementally and in a way that is financially manageable rather than saddle colleges with a hike so high that they are destined to fail.
David A. Armstrong is president of Thomas More College in Kentucky.
The University of Akron has had a series of controversies in the last year over spending priorities, management decisions and more. Now the university is fighting with its local newspaper, The Akron Beacon-Journal, which reported last week that spring semester enrollment was down 3.2 percent from a year ago. The day that story appeared, the university sent an email message to 3,500 people denouncing the newspaper for publishing “inaccurate, misleading and apparently relied on out-of-date information.” A new article in the newspaper said that new data had in fact been released the day the first article appeared and that the new data were not shared with the newspaper prior to its first article appeared. The new data, the newspaper reported, suggest serious enrollment challenges for Akron that weren't evident from the prior data. At this time a year ago, 2,464 students had confirmed they would attend in the fall. This year, 1,658 have done so.
Nonprofit Zenith Education Group is consolidating or closing 10 more campuses of the former Corinthian Colleges. The chain lost $100 million last year and is making changes to its business model, curriculum and leadership.
New North Carolina law requires public colleges to segregate bathrooms by biological birth gender, forcing transgender students and faculty members to use facilities that don't reflect their identities. UPDATE: Three university employees sue.
The University of California at Berkeley on Thursday vowed to improve prevention efforts and responses to allegations of sexual assault and sex harassment. The announcement follows a series of incidents in which the university has been accused of ignoring longstanding harassment issues or of issuing light sanctions for serious violations of policy. "We have an obligation to promote a campus culture in which sexual harassment, sexual violence, stalking and any abuse of power are neither tolerated nor ignored, but proactively prevented," said an email to the campus from Nicholas Dirks, the chancellor, and Claude Steele, the executive vice chancellor and provost.
Hunter R. Rawlings III (right), who is about to step down as president of the Association of American Universities, will next month become interim president of Cornell University. Rawlings will serve while Cornell's board conducts a search for a replacement to Elizabeth Garrett, who died of colon cancer March 6, less than a year into her tenure as president. Rawlings knows the Cornell presidency well. He served as president from 1995 to 2003, and then as interim in 2005-6.
The federal government will spend roughly $22 billion on the Pell Grant program in 2016, according to new numbers from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. The more than $7 billion projected surplus in the $30 billion program follows several years of declines in spending on Pell Grants, due to previous changes in eligibility for students.
As a result of the surplus, The Washington Post reported, more support may follow for restoring year-round access to Pell, meaning students can once again use the grants for summer courses. The elimination of that eligibility is one of the budget-related changes to the program during the Obama administration, which the White House recently has sought to reverse.
"Some have argued that Pell costs are unsustainable, but the CBO estimates show that the program has enough funding to restore year-round Pell, a policy with bipartisan support that incents completion and reduces college costs for low-income students," José Luis Santos, vice president for higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust, said in a statement. “Congress has the opportunity to preserve and strengthen this vital resource. We look forward to working with lawmakers to make this a reality.”