The University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday announced new rules to protect the privacy of those who apply to enroll there. The rules stress the importance of privacy, and of sharing information about applicants only for specific, professionally related reasons. Just a few weeks ago, the university was embarrassed by reports that a former admissions officer had been mocking applicants on Facebook. But a university spokesman said via e-mail that the admissions privacy rules had been in the works for months and "were not in any way a response" to the behavior of the former admissions officer.
Northwestern University announced Monday that it would cut the size of its entering class by 10 percent, while also adding 25 percent to spending on financial aid. While several other law schools have made such moves, amid declines in law school applications and a tough job market for graduates, Northwestern is among the more highly regarded law schools to announce such a shift. “We can’t ignore the destabilizing forces that the legal industry is facing today,” said Daniel Rodriguez, the law dean, in a statement.
Salem College has finished its review of what policies it should have about transgender students, but the letter announcing the completion of the review is vague on what that policy is and doesn't even use the word "transgender," The Winston-Salem Journal reported. Salem is a women's college and the issue of transgender students has been sensitive for women's colleges, given their history of providing single-sex education. Word that the college was considering a policy on transgender students set off debate among students and alumnae, with some favoring an inclusive policy and some fearing that allowing transgender students to stay enrolled would open the door to the college becoming fully coeducational. A letter from the board chair says that trustees, after “lengthy discussion and due consideration,” affirmed that Salem “values its students as individuals” and that “the wellbeing of all students is of paramount importance.” The letter also says that the board "has no intention of admitting men to Salem's traditional undergraduate program or becoming a coeducational institution." A spokeswoman declined to elaborate on how the college would respond to transgender students. Asked by the Journal why the word "transgender" wasn’t used in the letter, the spokeswoman said, "Does it need to be?"
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) on November 8, 1965. The ceremony occurred before a packed house at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University-San Marcos). With his wife, Lady Bird, by his side, and surrounded by faculty, students, and administrators, Johnson gave prefatory remarks that were solemn yet optimistic: "The president's signature upon this legislation passed by this Congress will swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open — the door to education."
The $3 billion act marked the culmination of three decades of federal support for research funding and student aid that stretched across the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. One title provided aid for land grant urban extension programs; two titles offered assistance for construction projects; another title created the Teachers Corps; and another lent support to historically black colleges. But it was the student assistance title (Title IV) and its trio of aid options — work study, loans, and grants — that revolutionized college-going in this country, helping tens of millions of Americans go to college. It was the key to opening Johnson’s "door to education."
This year the act is again up for reauthorization, and for the first time in recent memory there exists genuine concern that the door the act opened is starting to shut. The "cost crisis" in higher education, now more than four decades in the making, has finally come home to roost. Since the economic crisis hit five years ago, state appropriations have plummeted and tuition has climbed. Spiraling dropout rates and student debt combined with reports of "limited learning" in college and high unemployment after have upped the anxiety level. Recent polls indicate that the American people are worried about paying for college and unsure whether it’s still a worthwhile investment, even though all the evidence indicates that earning a degree today matters more than ever.
In last month’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said he intended to "ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid." With an agenda already loaded down by sequestration, gun control and immigration reform, this will be very hard to do. But let’s assume that the act is overhauled and changes are made to the current financial aid system. It’s worth speculating what this new regulatory regime might look like. That it might end up bearing a family resemblance to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the decade-old K-12 accountability model built on Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), should give pause to those of us who care about higher education.
The fundamentals of NCLB are well-known. In exchange for federal Title I funding, the states must annually test students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and all students must be "proficient" in these subjects by 2014, unless your state received a waiver from the Department of Education. Schools that fail to make adequate "annual yearly progress" face increasingly severe sanctions: staff can be fired and a new curriculum installed, and if improvements aren’t made, failing schools can be restructured or even closed. While the results of NCLB have been mixed — gains in one place offset by losses in another — there is no doubt that regulation of this sort would harm American higher education. The strength of the U.S. system lies in the autonomy and freedom it affords and in the wide range of institutional and pricing options that it provides. This is rarely acknowledged. The media home in on what are actually outlier institutions, like Harvard University or the University of California at Berkeley, cite anecdotal evidence, then generalize across the whole sector, as if all institutions are the same and all students have identical educational goals.
Most students don't go to residential colleges or have endless free time. Most students aren’t 18 to 21 years of age and most students don’t graduate in four years. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most students in this country go to a broad access four-year public institution or a two-year community college. Most students commute to class and work part time. And 40 percent of students are from low-income households.
All of which is to say that if new measures are passed to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality," as the White House has since described it, they will not affect all students or institutions the same. At wealthy colleges that attract exceptionally well-prepared students it will be business as usual no matter what happens. Not so at broad access institutions. Just as the burden of NCLB has been borne most by poor students and districts, similarly styled higher education reform will mean even more obstacles for "those who aspire to the middle class" — poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation students whose college options are already limited.
The president’s reluctance to address the link between poverty and education is notable, since the ESEA and the HEA were the main fronts of Johnson’s "unconditional war on poverty." The Educational Opportunity Grant, forerunner of the Pell Grant, was the HEA’s silver bullet, targeting students of "exceptional financial need" to help them earn a college diploma. Passed the year after the Civil Rights Act barred discrimination by any institution that received public funds, the HEA fueled the enrollment of African Americans and other underserved populations. Roughly 160,000 African Americans were in college in 1960, the majority of them at a historically black college or university (HBCU); by 1975 more than a million African Americans were in school, most of them outside the HBCU network.
In retrospect, the late 1970s was the golden age of college access, when the portable Pell Grant actually covered half the cost of a college education, as it was intended to do, and African Americans and other minority groups reaped the benefits of equal opportunity. It didn’t last. By the mid-1980s, loans eclipsed grants as the government’s preferred aid instrument, supplemented later by tax credits, tax-deferred 529 college saving plans, and state and institutional merit aid programs that have disproportionately benefited middle- and upper-income families. All the while the purchasing power of the Pell Grant has withered and the education gap has grown, impoverishing us all.
This brings us to our current moment and the various NCLB-inspired plans to tie aid to cost, value, and quality — that is, to outcomes and accountability rather than access and opportunity. This shift in priorities will not only hurt poor students but the entire higher education system. Colleges will be less willing to take chances on students that can’t pay full freight or look like they won’t graduate on time, leading to greater economic stratification and the end of student diversity as we’ve known it. Professors will feel even more pressure to pass students along regardless of the work they do, thus making rampant grade inflation worse. Administrators will be apt to massage student data to improve their institutional outcomes and rankings. And parents will demand that their students pursue pre-professional degrees with the strongest employment prospects, further marginalizing the liberal arts and other "blue sky" fields that offer less immediate "bang for the buck," turning them into wealthy majors for those who can afford idle cogitation. Meanwhile, ever greater numbers of poor students will cluster around the least desirable yet most expensive diploma mills, resulting in even more young people being left behind.
Are these doomsday scenarios far-fetched? Not really. Some of these things are already happening, now. But we’re not going to solve these issues by following policy makers and self-anointed reformers who want an aid model based on outcomes rather than opportunity. Simply put, higher education is setting itself up for failure by making promises it will not be able to keep. Does anyone really believe that we can create a system where every student who enters college graduates four years later with a degree, debt-free? Or that we can have classrooms where all students learn the same amount and in the same way? Or that every college graduate will land the job of her dreams? Higher education has never, ever done that. Not in the 19th century or in the 20th. And it never will.
Rather than creating more problems, we should mine the past for approaches that we know will keep "the door to education" open. The Pell Grant should be expanded and restored to its full purchasing power. To pay for it, regressive education tax credits favoring high earners should be abandoned and along with it financial aid to for-profit education providers, where the dropout, debt and default rates are highest and always have been. Colleges should be required to provide applicants with easy access to real pricing information to help with the choice process. And the income-based loan repayment program should be streamlined and a national service program created to put college graduates to work. After all, we don’t just need doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists; we also need teachers, artists, historians, and community organizers.
The challenge of our lifetime remains the problem of poverty. But to meet that challenge requires acknowledging that it exists. Lyndon Johnson knew that a truly great society was not possible "until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination." This remains as true today as it was then, and so too does Johnson’s fair warning: “We are still far from that goal.”
Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, has doubled its enrollment in the last six years -- twice -- to become the largest private university in the country, The Washington Post reported. Much of the growth has been online. Total enrollment at Liberty is now 74,000, with 62,000 enrolled online. (The 74,000 figure is more than 30,000 more than the enrollments at other large private nonprofit institutions, such as New York University, the University of Southern California and Brigham Young University.) A 2010 article in Inside Higher Ed explored Liberty's online strategy.
The new president of the College Board, David Coleman, has written a letter to College Board members proposing to redesign the SAT. He wants to fix it so the test will "focus on the core knowledge and skills that … are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college." The shift may seem unremarkable but it represents a paradigm revolution in relation to the original test. The old SAT, introduced in 1926, was supposed to be an IQ test, measuring innate ability, not hard-earned subject-specific knowledge of anything. For eugenicists, the IQ argument was a winner; for private colleges, it gave them bragging rights for selecting students with a nationally normed device that coincidentally had a powerful linear relation with family income. Administrative complacency, faculty ignorance, and business office economics have kept the test in play. Why fiddle with a winner?
Between 1926 and today, the test was "redesigned" only once, in 2005. When the University of California threatened to dump the old SAT because it was statistically weak and socially biased, the College Board kept them hanging on by promising a better test – one that would be predictively more powerful and without the social disparities of the old test.
Instead, the 2005 SAT has been a failure on all counts. The new SAT dropped the dripping-with-social-bias verbal analogies and added an easily coached writing section. It took more time, was more expensive, predicted even less well than the old one, and managed to magnify social disparities. Racial, gender, and socioeconomic status test score gaps widened, instead of narrowing. Nonetheless, the College Board proclaimed the new SAT a success; everything was supposedly rocket-science perfect, until Coleman’s letter last week.
But why does the SAT need fixing if it is already, as Coleman says, “the best standardized measure of college and career readiness currently available”? The administrators of the ACT would dissent and slightly more of America’s high school seniors now agree with them. Clearly, part of the reason the SAT needs a remake is in response to a decline in market share. But, paradoxically, another source of pressure on the test comes from new developments inside its true archrival, America’s high schools.
The institution that has done the most to uphold academic standards for generations of America’s college-going youth has not been the College Board; it has been the American high school. Coleman’s formulation on the SAT being "the best standardized measure" is a misleading half-truth; the best statistical predictor of college performance is, and always has been, high school grades in college preparatory courses. It is a myth that America’s high schools are so unreliable (but, of course, not our colleges) that their grades are inflated and meaningless measures of academic achievement.
Even the College Board stipulates in its technical literature that high school grade-point average is the variable that holds the highest statistical correlation with first year grades and with cumulative grades. And high school G.P.A. is the best predictor of who will finish a college degree. High school G.P.A. alone performs better than test scores alone, whether one uses the SAT or the ACT; when combined with high school G.P.A., test scores increase our statistical power by one percentage point, as found at DePaul University, using the ACT, or at the University of Georgia, using the SAT. For me, a variable that raises one’s adjusted r-square in a statistical model by one point contributes diddly to our predictive powers. And what it contributes that isn’t diddly is the transmission of social inequality. There is no correlation between high school G.P.A. and family income; the same cannot be said for the SAT/ACT.
America’s high schools, in reaction to No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s push for transparency and accountability, have given birth to a "common core" standards movement in math and English that has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Coleman is intimately familiar with the common core, as one of its architects, and my hat is off to him for that. But one of the consequences of getting a more nationally uniform curriculum is that high school grades will end up predicting even more powerfully than before how well one will do in college, and aptitude tests will be left further behind. America’s schools are where our youths learn the "knowledge and skills" needed for college level work; test-prep for a Saturday morning’s experience filling in the blanks cannot ever do that job. As America’s schools become more uniform and transparent, the fears of unreliability that the test industry preys upon will dissipate.
Another reason the SAT is on the drawing board again is the success of the test-optional movement in higher education. Pioneered by Bates College, and championed by many others, including my own Wake Forest University, more than one-third of America’s colleges do not require the SAT or ACT of an applicant. It is a myth that we need the SAT/ACT to select youths who are prepared to make the most of an opportunity to get a college degree — just as it is a myth that we have perfected a statistical science for doing college admissions. According to the College Board, our statistical models capture about 22 percent of the variance in college grades; the University of Georgia, where the SAT contributed one point, managed to get a model that explained 31 percent of the differences in undergraduates’ first year grades.
Most of what matters to undergraduate performance, 70 to 80 percent of what’s going on, isn’t captured by our best statistical modeling. Admissions remains more art than science, and colleges who look at the whole applicant in search of the best fit between individual and campus do a valuable service. Test-optional colleges have to look beyond the numbers. The ranks of test-optional colleges have grown in the last four years. A tipping point will come when everyone will rush to jump on board, and the admission by the College Board that its 2005 version of the test was a failure brings that day closer to us.
Many admissions officers, not to mention college presidents, have for years complained that prospective students focus too much on "sticker price" (stated prices of a college) rather than the actual cost to students and families (which may be considerably lower than sticker price, once aid is factored in). A new survey by the Art & Science Group and the College Board of SAT test-takers finds that the frustration is likely to remain. More than half (54 percent) of students reported that they judge a college's cost by sticker price without considering financial aid. And the survey was conducted in last 2012, after much publicity over the availability of "net price calculators," which allow those who share basic financial information to find out how much aid they would receive at a given college.
It's fashionable among some governors and pundits to suggest that the only way for students to get ahead economically these days is to embrace the most utilitarian of majors. So the results of an analysis by Bloomberg Businessweekmay be of interest. The magazine wanted to see which undergraduate colleges produced the students with the highest GMAT scores at the top 114 M.B.A. programs. The college whose graduates scored highest and ended up in the leading business schools is an institution where you can major in ancient history, film studies or anthropology, but not business. Swarthmore College topped the list. To be fair, those at some of the other institutions on the top 10 could have majored in business or related fields. Also of potential interest: 6 of the top 10 were colleges outside the United States. They include three in India, one in Canada, one in China and one in Britain.