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A better way to finance tuition than the recent New York plan (essay)

Bernie Sanders started the ball rolling in the most recent presidential campaign by arguing that everyone in this country should be able to go to college for free (at public universities and colleges). Hillary Clinton reworked that idea to say that public higher education should be free for students from low- and middle-income families. Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state of New York now have taken this idea one step farther by enacting Excelsior Scholarships that will make public higher education tuition-free for state residents whose family income falls below specified levels.

The debate leading to the New York legislation is encouraging in at least one important regard: it was not based on blanket statements about the desirability of free tuition and instead flowed principally from the notion that students who come from families who lack the resources to pay for college should not have be out of pocket for their tuition expenses. But lost in the recent New York debate, and the continuing national debate over the exploding price of college, is the fact that there is a better and simpler way for all states to achieve the goal of greater affordability within existing budget levels without imposing unreasonable requirements that blunt the intent and the impact of the legislation.

The new program in New York seeks to ensure that state residents from families with annual incomes up to $100,000 (eventually $125,000) can afford to attend the state’s public community colleges and four-year colleges. It would do this by providing enough state grant aid to offset tuition costs after other aid such as Pell Grants has been taken into account. Also, to ensure that assets “stay in state” (in Cuomo’s words), the legislation requires that Excelsior recipients continue to live and work in New York State after they graduate -- one year of residence for every year that they received the scholarship. The governor’s office estimates that nearly one million state residents will eventually benefit from the new program.

Some are suggesting that New York should serve as the model for other states to achieve greater college affordability. But several key concerns suggest its approach is not the way to go.

One set of concerns relate to the particulars of the plan. Making Excelsior grants into last-dollar scholarships will sharply reduce the progressivity of the plan, as the lowest-income students are most likely to receive aid from other sources and will thus qualify for less in Excelsior Scholarships. Perhaps of more concern, the requirement that recipients remain in state is not only largely unenforceable but patently unfair. What this policy says is that wealthier students who benefit from subsidized tuition incur no obligation to stay in state after college but less affluent students who receive Excelsior scholarships of some amount would be limited in making their future plans.

Other concerns about the New York plan are more generic. For one, it takes existing tuition levels as a starting point so that whatever led to those levels in the first place is frozen into the future. Ultimately, to be successful, higher education financing reforms must address underlying cost pressures rather than accept them as a fact of life.

Another generic concern is that plans that increase aid and lower public tuition place private nonprofit institutions at a severe disadvantage in competing for state residents. In the case of New York, this is a big liability. The state has many private nonprofit institutions and, for decades, its policies have recognized the value of using the private sector to reduce the costs to the state of providing a quality higher education to its residents. It does so through a generous financial aid program and longstanding “Bundy Aid,” which pays private institutions for each resident that they graduate at different levels of study.

A Better Way

What might be a simpler and more effective way to do this -- one that can be accomplished at existing budget levels in most states? It would entail following two key steps.

The first would be to move to a system in which tuition at public institutions is based on the ability of families with average means to pay for college. That would involve setting tuition as a proportion of a general index of ability to pay, such as state median family income or GDP per capita. It would be up to the state to set the percentage and decide whether that figure should vary for different types of public institutions. Such a policy would have the salutary effect of moving the tuition-setting process in the public sector from an institution-based approach, in which state funds fill the gap between what institutions spend and what they charge, to a student-oriented concept based on what families can actually afford.

The second step would be for the state to provide enough grant aid to cover full tuition levels for students from families with below-average incomes. That component is vital, as it would provide an effective safety net for students whose families lack the necessary resources.

There also is a symmetry in this relationship that bears telling. It would be up to state officials to set the tuition percentages that apply to each type of institution, but the reality is that the higher the percentage of income used to pay tuition, the less that the state would need to provide to subsidize the difference in what is spent by institutions and what is charged to students. But it is also true that the higher the price, the more that states would have to provide in the form of grant aid to allow students from families with below-average incomes to meet their tuition expenses. So it would be up to state officials to decide the appropriate balance between tuition subsidies and financial aid.

The important point here is that it is within the power of every state to make this kind of determination without the federal government stepping in to tell them how to do it or what percentage of average income should be devoted to paying tuition. It also makes sense in this context to view Pell Grants primarily as a means to help low- and moderate-income students pay for the living costs that their families cannot afford to pay. Using Pell Grants to pay living costs would also help to reduce students’ reliance on borrowing to pay those costs -- one of the biggest problems with the current loan structure, as much of the existing debt is accumulated to pay living costs.

The issue of making public higher education “free” should also be seen in the broader context of the continuing higher education policy debate in this country and the importance of finding solutions that meet the very real financial challenges that the sector faces. What we need are middle-course policies that steer between, on the one hand, free tuition and, on the other, an even greater reliance on loans and the for-profit sector to fill gaps in what the public sector can provide.

The many calls for making public higher education tuition-free tend to ignore the reality that tuition revenues are a crucial resource for institutions to maintain the quality of education. The tuition-free argument also discounts the fact that, in looking around the country and the world, low or no tuition usually results in greater inequities in enrollment. Middle- and upper-class students flock to the low-cost alternative, freezing out students with fewer resources who don’t have as good grades.

By the same token, calls for deregulating public tuition and leaving it to students to borrow more and to rely on the private for-profit sector to provide more higher education is a recipe for disaster. The result will be that the system becomes even more dependent on loans and even more inaccessible to students whose families lack the necessary resources to pay mounting prices.

The Trump administration’s recent backing away from various consumer protections put in place by the Obama administration is another bad sign of moving to the extremes rather than seeking out the middle course. Similarly, one part of the daunting student loan problems we face is that, over time, the federal government has not exercised enough due diligence in ensuring that programs of study meet minimal requirements for financial integrity and that many colleges lack the academic quality to ensure that students would benefit from receiving federal aid and borrowing for their education without defaulting.

So in this context, the free-tuition debate should be seen as an opportunity to look at policy solutions that would improve affordability and accessibility of higher education on a sustainable basis. The answer, however, is not to make public higher education tuition-free. Rather, it should entail making sure that tuition charges are reasonable in the context of what the average family can afford to pay -- not based on what institutions require to fund their ever-increasing needs. And there must be a full commitment to fund aid sufficiently to help those students who cannot reasonably pay that tuition.

Arthur M. Hauptman is an independent public policy consultant specializing in higher education finance issues.

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Berkeley Settles With Former Law School Dean

The University of California, Berkeley, agreed to let a former law school dean accused of sexual harassment remain on the faculty on sabbatical through May 2018, the Associated Press reported. Under the agreement, announced Friday, the university will withdraw all disciplinary complaints against Sujit Choudhry and allow him to resign next year with access to more than $100,000 in research and travel funds through that time. The agreement includes a "no admissions" clause, saying that neither Choudhry nor the university's Board of Regents admit to wrongdoing in the case.

Choudhry’s former executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, who accused him of kissing and hugging her without her consent, said in a statement Saturday that the deal “insults all who suffer harassment at the hands of those with power and privilege.” Choudhry will donate $50,000 to nonprofit organizations of Sorrell's choice under the agreement, and he’ll also pay $50,000 of her legal fees.

Berkeley previously substantiated Sorrell’s allegations and gave Choudhry a 10 percent pay cut, and he resigned as dean and stopped teaching but remained a professor, according to the Associated Press. Sorrell sued the university over the harassment last year. Her attorney, Leslie F. Levy, said Saturday that the new agreement is “just one more example of [the university] refusing to take sexual harassment seriously and once again offering a soft landing even after a finding of harassment.”

Choudhry also sued the university over the case, alleging racial discrimination based on the fact that he is South Asian. He accused the university of opening a second investigation of him for the same conduct after Sorrell filed her lawsuit and reports it had mishandled other cases of sexual misconduct. He has since dropped the suit.

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Saint Martin's Tenured Faculty Members Unionize

Tenure-track and tenured faculty members and librarians at Saint Martin’s University voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Friday. The new union is calling on administrators to honor the vote by engaging in collective bargaining with it. That’s despite previous administrative opposition to a non-tenure-track faculty union on campus on the grounds that as a religious institution, Saint Martin’s is not bound to National Labor Relations Board decisions. That board voted in 2014 to allow contingent faculty members at Pacific Lutheran University to form a union because they did not perform specific religious functions.

The newest Saint Martin’s vote is complicated by a separate, longstanding legal precedent against tenure-track faculty unions at private institutions, because these professors are managers. A local NLRB office ruled against a tenure-track faculty union at Carroll College in 2016 on the those grounds. University officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Roy Heynderickx, university president, said last month in response to a faculty walkout over union issues that the campus's Board of Trustees and Saint Martin’s Abbey have "reaffirmed their belief that a direct working relationship between faculty and administration best serves the educational mission of the university," according to The Olympian.

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California appeals court rules Deep Springs College may admit women

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An unusually small and rigorous college has been trying to become coeducational since 2011. A California appeals court might make that possible.

Image of Trump sets off dispute at Stanford

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Professor says university wouldn’t let her print image of Donald Trump -- from recording where he talked about assaulting women -- for an academic conference on Title IX. Amid growing attention to dispute, university relents.

U of Central Florida reprimands art professor over allegedly demeaning comments

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University of Central Florida reprimands a long-serving professor of art for allegedly demeaning a student.

CUNY, SUNY plan major expansion of OER efforts

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Administrators at CUNY and SUNY look to seize an $8 million opportunity to drastically expand the use of open educational resources at their campuses.

Davidson College student petition demands access to Board of Trustees

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New student group at Davidson wants board to hold regular town hall meetings.

Valencia College President Wins McGraw Prize

Sandy Shugart, president of Florida's Valencia College, is one of three recipients of this year's McGraw Prize in Education, which is administered through an alliance between McGraw-Hill Education and Arizona State University.

Shugart's prize was for his role in a "stellar model of community college change that is increasing graduation rates and helping large numbers of Hispanic students succeed," according to a news release, which said Shugart had overseen an "83 percent increase in the number of students who earn an A.A. degree each year" from 2006 to 2014.

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