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Education Dept. Grants Researchers More Data Access

The U.S. Department of Education will offer researchers new access to federal data for studies that "can inform and advance policies and practices that support students’ postsecondary success and strengthen repayment outcomes for borrowers," the White House announced last week. The pilot program will allow experts -- starting with Federal Reserve Board researchers this fall -- to apply to access and match student-aid data files with other surveys and administrative data, the Obama administration said, while keeping data safeguards in place.

The new Advancing Insights Through Data program "builds on the administration’s recent efforts to leverage government data in ways that can improve service delivery, promote transparency and strengthen accountability, particularly through the College Scorecard, which includes the most comprehensive, reliable data ever published on students’ postcollege earnings and repayment outcomes," the White House said.

College has become less affordable in most states, threatening to worsen economic stratification

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College affordability has declined in 45 states since 2008, with low- and middle-income students in particular feeling the pinch, new study finds.

New Employee Degree Program From JetBlue

JetBlue on Monday announced a new employer-sponsored college degree program with some unusual features. The airline is offering its employees with at least 15 previous college credits the chance to earn a bachelor's degree for $3,500 or less.

So far 400 JetBlue employees have signed up for the program. Each is assigned one of six success coaches JetBlue has trained and employs. The airline and its coaches then help employee students map a path to a degree from Thomas Edison State University, an online, public university based in New Jersey.

Students will receive prior learning credits for skills and knowledge they've picked up on the job. They also will be directed to online courses from Sophia, StraighterLine.com and Study.com, which in turn can earn students credit recommendations from the American Council on Education, which Thomas Edison accepts.

"We give them one class at a time," said Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, who helped create the program. She said the airline sought to eliminate some of the complexity in earning a degree and to use coaches to review students' transcripts and to help them fill in the gaps.

The company is planning for 1,000 of its 18,000 employees to be enrolled in the degree program on an annual basis, Simi said.

Essay challenging academic studies on states' performance funding formulas

A recent Inside Higher Ed article about the analysis of state performance funding formulas by Seton Hall University researchers Robert Kelchen and Luke Stedrak might unfairly lead readers to believe that such formulas are driving public colleges and universities to intentionally enroll more students from high-income families, displacing much less well-off students. It would be cause for concern if institutions were intentionally responding to performance-based funding policies by shifting their admissions policies in ways that make it harder for students who are eligible to receive Pell Grants to go to college.

Kelchen and Stedrak’s study raises this possibility, but even they acknowledge the data fall woefully short of supporting such a conclusion. These actions would, in fact, be contrary to the policy intent of more recent and thoughtfully designed outcomes-based funding models pursued in states such as Ohio and Tennessee. These formulas were adopted to signal to colleges and universities that increases in attainment that lead to a better-educated society necessarily come from doing a much better job of serving and graduating all students, especially students of color and students from low-income families.

Unfortunately, Kelchen’s study has significant limitations, as has been the case with previous studies of performance-based funding. Most notably, as acknowledged by Kelchen and Stedrak, these studies lump together a wide variety of approaches to performance-based funding, some adopted decades ago, which address a number of challenges not limited to the country’s dire need to increase educational attainment. Such a one-size-fits-all approach fails to give adequate attention to the fact that how funding policies are designed and implemented actually matters.

For example, the researchers’ assertion that institutions could possibly be changing admissions policies to enroll better-prepared, higher-income students does not account for differential effects among states that provide additional financial incentives in their formulas to ensure low-income and minority students’ needs are addressed vs. those states that do nothing in this area. All states are simply lumped together for purposes of the analysis.

In addition, the claim that a decrease in Pell dollars per full-time-equivalent student could possibly be caused by performance-based funding fails to account for changes over time in federal policy related to Pell Grants, different state (and institutional) tuition policies, other state policies adopted or enacted over time, changes in the economy and national and state economic well-being, and changes in student behavior and preferences. For example, Indiana public research and comprehensive universities have become more selective over time because of a policy change requiring four-year institutions to stop offering remedial and developmental education and associate degrees, instead sending these students to community colleges.

If any of these factors have affected states with newer, well-designed outcomes-based funding systems and other states with rudimentary performance-based funding or no such systems at all, as I believe they have, then there is strong potential for a research bias introduced by failing to account for key variables. For example, in states that are offering incentives for students to enroll in community colleges, such as Tennessee, the average value of Pell Grants at public bachelor’s-granting institutions would drop if more low-income, Pell-eligible students were to choose to go to lower-cost, or free, community colleges.

I agree with Kelchen and Stedrak that more evaluation and discussion are needed on all forms of higher education finance formulas to better understand their effects on institutional behavior and student outcomes. Clearly, there are states that had, and in some cases continue to have, funding models designed in a way that could create perverse incentives for institutions to raise admissions standards or to respond in other ways that run contrary to raising attainment for all students, and for students of color in particular. As the Seton Hall researchers point out, priority should be given to understanding the differential effects of various elements that go into the design and implementation of state funding models.

The HCM Strategists’ report referenced in the study was an attempt by us to inform state funding model design and implementation efforts. There needs to be a better understanding of which design elements matter for which students in which contexts -- as well as the implications of these evidence-based findings for policy design and what finance policy approaches result in the best institutional responses for students. There is clear evidence that performance funding can and does prompt institutions to improve student supports and incentives in ways that benefit students.

Analysis under way by Research for Action, an independent, Philadelphia-based research shop, will attempt to account for several of the existing methodological limitations correctly noted by Kelchen and Stedrak. This quantitative and qualitative analysis focuses on the three most robust and longest-tenured outcomes-based funding systems, in Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee.

Factors examined by Research for Action will include the type of outcomes-based funding being implemented, specifics of each state’s formula as applied to both the two- and four-year sectors, the timing of full implementation, changes in state policies over time, differences in the percentages of funding allocated based on outcomes such as program and degree completion, and differences in overall state allocations to public higher education. And, for the first time, Research for Action will move beyond the limitations of analyses based primarily on federal IPEDS data by incorporating state longitudinal data, which give a more complete picture.

As states continue to implement various approaches to funding higher education, it is essential to understand the effects on institutional behavior and student outcomes. Doing so will require more careful analyses than those seen to date and a more detailed understanding of policy design and implementation factors that are likely to affect institutional responses. Broad-brush analyses such as Kelchen and Stedrak’s can help to inform the questions that need to be asked but should not be used to draw any meaningful conclusions about the most effective ways to ensure colleges and universities develop and maintain a laser focus on graduating more students with meaningful credentials that offer real hope for the future.

Martha Snyder is a director at HCM Strategists, a public policy advocacy and consulting firm.

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Veterans Rally on Hill as Congress Mulls GI Bill Trim

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and several other veterans' groups held a rally on Capitol Hill Thursday to protest a proposed cut to a benefit included in the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The veterans, who were joined by several Democratic members of Congress, were pushing back against a provision in a bill the U.S. House of Representatives passed last month. The bill included a 50 percent cut in the housing stipend for dependents of a military or veteran parent who had transferred the benefit to them. The U.S. Senate is considering a similar version of the bill.

"It is embarrassing that we have to come here and beg our elected officials not to steal from the pockets of our military, veterans and their families," said IAVA founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff in a written statement. "As we stand in front of the U.S. Capitol, men and women are fighting in a prolonged war in Afghanistan and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, earning this very benefit. We are once again seeing the impact of a growing civilian-military divide in this country. It is national disgrace that some members of Congress are willing to use veterans' benefits as a piggy bank to pay for other programs."

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff speaks at a rally on Capitol Hill Thursday, April 14, protesting a cut to GI Bill benefits.

Nebraska to Require Student Loan Notification

Earlier this month Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts signed legislation to require the state's public institutions to provide students with detailed annual reports on their projected student loan debt, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Under the legislation, which is modeled on an Indiana law, colleges must tell students the total amount of federal loans received, estimates of monthly payments, the number of years they can expect to be in debt and how close they are to aggregate borrowing limits.

Research Project on Performance-Based Funding

An ongoing study conducted by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit research organization, looked at the effect of performance-based funding policies in higher education across three states: Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. The group released early results from the work over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

The project takes into account key differences in the type of policies as well as variations in state funding that were tied to them. Initial findings showed consistent positive effects on the numbers of bachelor's degrees awarded under the policies. But the study did not find evidence of a positive effect on graduation rates.

Federal spending protects most vulnerable students from state disinvestment, study finds

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Low-income and nondependent students have been protected from state disinvestment in higher education during the last two decades because of increasing federal aid spending, a new study finds.

Survey: 90% of Students Feel Unready to Repay Loans

A survey of roughly 90,000 students, most of whom attend four-year colleges, found that 90 percent of respondents feel they do not have all the information necessary to pay back their student loans. EverFi, an education technology company, conducted the survey, which was funded by Higher One, a financial company focused on higher education. It is the fourth installment of the annual survey. This year's version found a continuing decrease in students' planning for responsible financial behaviors.Line graph showing downward-trending changes in students' attitudes about various financial behaviors, such as following a budget or paying bills on time, from 2012 to 2015.

Education Department Drafts Standards for Accreditors

The Obama administration is proposing new standards that govern how and when college accreditors have to alert the U.S. Department of Education about troubled institutions under the accreditors’ purview.

The department is soliciting public comments on a letter it plans to send to accreditors that will outline the circumstances under which they must notify federal officials of actions they take against a college.

Federally recognized college accrediting agencies are already required to provide certain information to the Education Department. As part of the administration’s executive actions on accreditation, the Education Department is now looking to standardize how that process works.

The letter outlines, for instance, uniform definitions for the various terms that accreditors use to describe similar types problems at a college (such as “denial” of accreditation or “suspension” of accreditation). Under the new policy, accreditors would also have to triage information they send to the department by level of severity to help federal regulators more quickly sort out serious problems from more routine changes in a college’s accreditation status.

As the department collects more robust information from accreditors about troubled institutions, it also plans to make such information publicly available, according to the letter. The department will accept public comments until June 6.

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