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U.S. plan would cancel federal loans of borrowers misled by their colleges

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Draft plan provides a first look at the Education Department’s new debt relief process for federal student loans.

Clinton Draws Attention to Feature of Her College Plan

Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton used Thursday night's debate to reiterate their support for plans that would make public higher education free (under the Sanders plan) or debt-free (under the Clinton plan). But Clinton drew attention to one feature of her plan that isn't in the Sanders plan. Both plans anticipate a federal-state partnership, but the Clinton plan has provisions for public colleges in states where the governors and legislatures refuse to provide their share of the match. The debate was held at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Clinton said she doubted that Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who has pushed for deep cuts in state support for higher education, would participate.

"Senator Sanders’s plan really rests on making sure that governors like Scott Walker contribute $23 billion on the first day to make college free. I am a little skeptical about your governor actually caring enough about higher education to make any kind of commitment like that," Clinton said, to applause. In his response, Sanders reiterated (also to applause) his commitment to free tuition in public higher education, but he did not respond to Clinton's specific criticism, except to note that the United States earlier evolved to make universal K-12 education free.

A transcript of the debate is available from The New York Times.

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Budget Crisis Prompts La. to Halt Grant Payments to Colleges

Louisiana officials informed colleges in the state on Thursday that they would stop receiving the funds they need to cover their students' grants under the state's merit-based scholarship program, The Advocate reported. Governor John Bel Edwards said Thursday night that colleges and universities would be expected to make up the 20 percent of the funding (roughly $28 million) that the state is withholding, so that students themselves would be made whole as the state's contract with TOPS recipients requires.

The state is facing a $943 million budget shortfall, and major budget cuts are expected.

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Programs have success helping low-income students graduate

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Two new studies suggest many colleges may be too quick to write off low-income students and community college transfers. Money and extra support change the equation, at least for some.

Report Urges Changes in Loan Repayment, Tax Credits

The world is not lacking for reports on how to restructure the federal student financial aid programs. But here's a new one to chew over, from the Urban Institute and its researchers Sandy Baum and Martha Johnson: "Strengthening Federal Student Aid."

The report calls for combining the varied student loan repayment plans based on borrowers' incomes into one "universal, automatic and frugal income-driven repayment plan," and consolidating the numerous tax credits and deductions for college expenses into a single option, among other things.

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Gates Foundation Sharpens Its Data Push

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday released a report on how some states and colleges are using data to improve student graduation and retention rates. The foundation said the report is based on a decade's worth of lessons learned.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is working with the foundation to develop a forthcoming "metrics framework" that further refines the data areas identified in the new report. The foundation said it will work with policy makers and others to encourage the use of those metrics, including their use as a way to measure the effectiveness of the foundation's own investments. The IHEP report is slated for release in March.

The impetus for the data push is gaps in knowledge about "posttraditional" students, the foundation said, including low-income, first-generation and adult students.

"Higher education is reproducing privilege in this country," said Dan Greenstein, the director of education and postsecondary success in the foundation's U.S. program. "It's unsustainable."

Many data tools from the federal government and other sources have failed to keep up with changing demographics in higher education, according to the foundation.

"We can't answer some of the basic questions," said Jennifer Engle, a senior program officer for Gates who previously worked for IHEP. "We're going to have modernize our data systems."

The foundation said it has focused on metrics that many in higher education agree have value and where serious gaps remain. Those areas include data about students' progress toward a credential (including part-time students), time to completion, transfer rates, debt accumulated, employment after graduation, how much students learn in college and how they use that knowledge and those skills.

Gates last year announced its policy priority areas for college completion. The new report is part of that effort. The foundation has convened a working group it said will make specific policy recommendations later this year on how to improve institutional, state and federal data systems. Likely topics include a federal student unit record, public-private partnerships and improving the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Competency-based education threatens to further stratify higher education (essay)

Among the calls for university reform currently in circulation, competency-based education appears to be the one, at least at the moment, that has gained a bit of traction.

This is due largely to a funding push by the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, advocacy by groups such as the American Association of Colleges & Universities that have promoted a particular version of CBE, and a somewhat hesitant thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Education, which has recently put in place a program to encourage experiments with competency-based approaches and other forms of experimentation in its Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program.

In the presidential campaign, CBE has also gained some limited attention for being one of the central planks of Marco Rubio’s plan to transform higher education.

Resurrected from the archive of failed education experiments, CBE has recently undergone a conceptual makeover to become the poster child for various reform-minded groups seeking to disrupt higher education. Some see it as a way to provide a “more relevant 21st-century general education curriculum” (i.e., to turn universities into soft-skill vocational programs, aka Jebification).

Others want to use CBE as a means to “personalize learning” (i.e., to place all students in front of a screen, aka Zuckerberging). While still others see it as a way to “increase time to degree completion” (i.e., to get students in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible, aka Gatesification or Merisotising).

In some higher education settings, CBE has led to the creation of entirely new degree programs, primarily at online universities such as Capella, Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire’s College for America. In other, more brick-and-mortar locales, it has served as a means to restructure general education, such as found in institutions that are part of the AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project.

However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.

Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.

CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.

CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.

These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.

In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.

In the market-centered spirit of our times, the move to CBE is presented as simply a matter of the new economic realities of higher education in the age of austerity and state budget constraints, or as a matter of “consumer choice” where wily student consumers and their parents comparison shop at the knowledge mall and select the educational experience that provides “more bang for the buck.”

However, on closer inspection the move to CBE is much more politically scripted than mandated by the inevitability of the economics of higher education. It is, in short, an economically biased political experiment of epic proportions. It creates, as Guy Standing describes it, an education system that is “restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.”

CBE as a policy only makes sense if we place it in the larger ongoing political project of public realm minimization. Here the activities of public institutions and publicly funded services are reduced to a bare-bones, absolute minimal level of functioning in order to “create efficiencies” and induce “taxpayer savings.”

When this happens public services, such as schools, some hospitals and public transportation, and even the public domain itself, become chronically underfunded and prone to dramatic and often willy-nilly cuts. This minimization generates uncertainty, competition and conflict within the organization servicing the public and produces the inability to provide adequate or even second-rate services.

This often magnifies calls for public sector reforms, such as more businesslike models of new public management, privatization and increased auditing and accountability. As this process continues onward, budget cycle after budget cycle, services may become so reduced that the system either slows to a crawl or breaks down entirely (think of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Flint, Mich., water supply). In turn those who are serviced by these organizations develop an extreme cynicism and even revulsion toward public services. When politically inflamed, as with Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this cynicism stokes antiunion and antiprofessional sentiments, where public sector unions are blamed for having too much guild-like power and draining away public resources.

What this all means is the CBE is not just a statement about the future of a certain segment of American higher education but one about what opportunities should be there for those who partake of public services. Are these services to be on par with those in the private sector in the social democratic spirit, or are they to be cheap, reduced-rate imitations that can only be avoided by those with the right purchasing power?

Steven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University and author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education (Routledge).

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Why new U.S. experiment with alternative higher ed models really matters (essay)

In every generation since 1862, America has innovated on the form of the university. Until ours.

From the land-grant universities to Clark Kerr’s seminal work, America’s higher education landscape has faced almost continuous “innovator’s dilemma.” Competition in its purest sense reigned as new forms of institutions continuously forced America’s universities to be the best in the world or be overtaken by upstarts.

America’s higher education institutions have a history of embracing change because the ecosystem is very different from other industries. While each new institutional form was extremely controversial in its time, new providers in higher education tend to expand access (or the definition of what higher education is) rather than replace existing institutions.

For example, community colleges became feeders to four-year schools while research universities brought a research agenda to almost every university. It’s the equivalent of cars complementing rather than replacing the horse-drawn carriage or AltaVista retaining its market after the rise of Google.

This period of stagnation in higher education innovation is tied to an anniversary we just celebrated -- the 50th year of the Higher Education Act. The Higher Education Act began the Title IV financial aid program that provided government-guaranteed loans and Pell Grants to students at colleges that follow the strict, input-based metrics of success effectively required by the Higher Education Act.

The impact is clear. Only colleges willing to follow the government’s strict guidelines could access “free” government money. Without new entrants, prices for college rose inexorably for the last 50 years and, especially in the last decade, policy makers, parents and students started asking serious questions about the efficacy of the university system.

The Department of Education is finally offering the catalyst for our generation of education innovators to continue the tradition of new institutional forms. The source of hope is the awkwardly named Education Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (or EQUIP). At its heart is a refreshing challenge to innovators: How would you reimagine the university of the future without the strictures imposed by the Higher Education Act and Title IV? If you didn’t have regulations driving an antiquated system of input-driven variables, what postsecondary experience would you design?

There are many concerns about the EQUIP program. As with any new program, the first participants and how they are overseen will define the success of EQUIP. The Department of Education, accreditors and university partners face a compelling challenge: ensuring that the programs approved are high quality.

There appear to be two mechanisms. First, the department is limiting the initial program in scope and number. Second, the department and quality-assurance bodies must closely scrutinize the new models to ensure the academic integrity of the higher education ecosystem and protect government funds and students from undue risk. History will decide if these guardrails are sufficient.

The department is not taking the risk to launch EQUIP in a vacuum. New entrants have emerged that fill specific massive workforce demands or highly disruptive models. MOOCs with tens of millions of viewers are reaching a whole generation of potential college goers. Galvanize and General Assembly will train more technology workers than traditional universities will grant computer science degrees by 2017. Udacity is selling nanodegrees tied to employment in high-demand areas.

These new providers have all realized a fundamental disconnect: while 96 percent of provosts feel they are preparing students for work, only 11 percent of business leaders think colleges are effectively preparing graduates for work. Into this gap, students have been willing to pay out of pocket -- without federal financial aid -- for these services.

In effect, students are willing to pay out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars more for coding schools than traditional computer science classes by forgoing federal government subsidies. The results are clear: the average student who starts at Galvanize has an average salary of $45,435; after a six-month immersive experience, the average graduate makes approximately $76,821.

While the MOOCs and boot camps are front-page news, other new models are emerging -- for example, experiential providers like UnCollege creating gap year opportunities. Universities are not left out of the new models -- in fact, some of the most promising examples of new models involve partnerships between traditional universities and Silicon Valley like the Minerva Project.

The boot camps, MOOCs and nontraditional providers are only the start of what will likely be one of the greatest periods of revolution in higher education. A thank-you to the Department of Education for recognizing this trend and creating EQUIP.

The entrepreneurial spirit of American higher education innovators has been stifled for too long and is now ready to bloom.

A Bit of History

Below is a brief list of the types of revolutions/evolutions of the higher education form over the past generation. While historians of higher education may differ on certain trends, the overall scope of change and innovation in higher education is clear.

Key Year

Driver

Sample Universities Formed

State University System, 1862

Railroads and the Civil War made clear that industrialization of economy was coming. New technology drivers of old industries (e.g., farming) portended massive shift from rural economy to urban.

Michigan State University, University of Maryland

Research University, 1880s

American industrialists saw the need for combining teaching and research into one institution, and made large philanthropic gifts to create the modern research university.

Johns Hopkins University, Stanford

Community Colleges, 1920s/1930s

“New economy” workers realized that a BA degree was not required for numerous jobs and skills in the 20th century.

Pima Community College, LaGuardia Community College

California Plan, 1960s

Mission creep among the public university systems required a new rule book for higher education systems.

University of California System

EQUIP, 2015

Technology portends change in teaching methodologies and rise of new disciplines (like coding).

To be determined

 

Daniel Pianko is a co-founder and managing director of University Ventures, a higher education-focused investment fund.

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Recommendations for Using Repayment Rates

The federal government should hold colleges and universities accountable for whether their former students are able to successfully repay their loans, said a report released Wednesday by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The group, which advocates for low-income students in higher education, offers a series of recommendations for how policy makers should use loan repayment rates to set higher performance standards that colleges must meet as well as provide students and families with more consumer information about their prospective institutions.

The report calls on lawmakers to adopt repayment rates as a supplement to cohort default rates. It also recommends defining successful loan repayment as more than a $1 reduction in a borrower’s principal loan balance (which is how the Education Department currently calculates the rate).

The Obama administration released data last year showing, for the first time, the rate at which federal loan borrowers repay their debt at each college.

Senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican, last year introduced legislation that would replace the federal government’s loan default rate standards for colleges with ones based on loan repayment rates.

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Jeb Bush unveils higher education plan with focus on federal loan overhaul

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The Republican presidential hopeful wants to gut the federal student loan programs -- and replace them with a federal income-based financing system.

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