Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

December 4, 2020

The University of Vermont’s College of Arts and Sciences told faculty and staff members this week that an ongoing decline in enrollments, coupled with the pandemic, make necessary the termination of 12 “low-enrollment” majors, 11 minors and 4 master’s programs. Some departments may also be eliminated or combined. Programs pegged for elimination include classical civilization, geology, German, Greek, Asian studies, Latin American and Caribbean studies, Italian studies, Latin and religion. 

“This decision has been extremely difficult,” William Falls, dean, wrote in an internal announcement. “It has been informed by data and guided by a strategy to focus on the future success of our college by consolidating our structure and terminating programs that can no longer be supported without jeopardizing programs with more robust enrollment.” The Board of Trustees, the university president and provost all expect the college to “move forward on this plan expeditiously. There is no other way forward for [the college] to balance its budget.”

December 4, 2020

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released guidance Tuesday on altering student behavior as it relates to COVID-19, as well as testing for the virus.

The first report from the National Academies makes recommendations for campus leaders looking to alter student behavior, using existing research in developmental psychology.

“Making a behavior easy to start and rewarding to repeat, tying a behavior to existing habits, providing alternatives to unwanted behaviors, and providing specific descriptions of desired behaviors are strategies that campus leaders can employ to make it more likely that protective behaviors will become habitual for students,” the National Academies said in a press release about the report. “Many adolescents and young adults are socially driven, with a strong desire for reward and acceptance. Identity, agency, and autonomy are centrally important during the college years.”

The report was produced by the Societal Experts Action Network and sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The second report from the National Academies concerns testing for COVID-19 on college campuses. Fast and frequent testing can limit spread on college campuses, report authors say, but testing is just one part of a comprehensive plan that needs to be tailored to an individual college or university. Ensuring a quick response to test results and setting up predetermined metrics to inform decision making can help limit spread and increase transparency, authors said.

“A comprehensive approach requires the application of epidemiology and science; rapid isolation of positive individuals and quarantine of those with potential exposures; contact tracing; environmental management; mask wearing; physical distancing; and engagement with the community, particularly local health officials,” authors said.

The report was sponsored by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

December 4, 2020

New research looks at nearly 100 million projected job openings over the next decade across 292 occupations that could be filled by skilled workers who do not hold four-year degrees.

The report from [email protected], a nonprofit group, used federal data to examine roughly 130 million U.S. job transitions over the last decade. It found that 60 percent of skilled workers without four-year degrees, or those who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs), who had job transitions during this period made stagnant or downwardly mobile changes. The research also found race and gender disparities. Black or Hispanic STARs, for example, were half as likely as their white peers to make a transition to a high-wage job.

Byron Auguste, [email protected]'s CEO, said today's labor market is broken.

"Not that long ago, workers who developed skills on-the-job had a shot at upward mobility nearly on par with college graduates," he said in a written statement. "But a decades-long drift towards screening out job seekers who lack a certain pedigree has created a fractured labor market -- one that puts an arbitrary ceiling on economic mobility for over 70 million STARs, who have the skills to contribute and to thrive."

The report tracked the 40 percent of transitions for workers without four-year degrees after which they earned higher wages. The 292 "destination" jobs identified by the research could be filled by more STARS in the future, the report concluded.

"As policymakers and employers work together toward an inclusive economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19, this research offers a template for how employers can rebuild their workforces," Erica L. Groshen, former Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner, who leads an advisory panel for [email protected], said in a statement.

December 4, 2020

At a time when the economic impact of the pandemic is disproportionately hurting the incomes of Black and Latino families, financial aid officers at universities and colleges could use their professional discretion to help keep students of color in school.

However, first-generation students in particular might not know that officers are allowed to adjust the financial information used to determine the amount of aid they can receive if they or their families have lost a job or had their income cut, says a new policy paper by Education Trust.

Jaime Ramirez-Mendoza, an Education Trust higher education policy analyst, said in an interview he’d been a first-generation student and didn’t know administrators could use their professional judgement to take recent changes in a family’s income into consideration. Whether students can get more aid “could mean the difference between getting a degree or [being] one of the 36 million students who drop out,” said Ramirez-Mendoza, who wrote the brief with Tiffany Jones, the group’s senior adviser on higher education policy.

At the same time, the paper said, there is the potential for racial bias should financial aid officers use their discretion. However, neither the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators nor the Education Department keeps track of the racial demographics of the administrators. Two-thirds of financial aid offices said they are not considering making the members of committees hearing appeals of financial aid judgments more diverse.

The lack of demographic data about the racial diversity of administrators is concerning, Jones said in an interview. “That there’s been racism in lending and financial serves is well documented and pervasive in the United States,” she said.

The paper makes a number of recommendations. Among them, that the Education Department to require institutions, if they do not do it on their own, to make publicly available the racial demographics of financial aid officers, and to track and make available data, separated by the race of students, on decisions made using the officers’ professional judgment.

December 4, 2020

Faculty at Marquette University released a pair of open letters Thursday supporting the humanities and criticizing the administration’s plans for faculty and program cuts.

This semester the administration predicted a $45 million shortfall by 2022, exacerbated by the pandemic but due mostly to demographic changes that stand to impact enrollment. Officials at the university have said that long-term solutions will likely involve faculty and staff reductions, potentially to the tune of 225 to 300 layoffs. Faculty have been told that the College of Arts and Sciences could be cut by 25 percent.

One of the open letters was from faculty in STEM disciplines at the university and was written to support continued investment in the humanities. The 54 signatories expressed a belief that the humanities are necessary to ensure commitment to Jesuit traditions, maintain competition with peer institutions and enable student success.

“Scientists graduating from Marquette need to be effective communicators, humanistic-oriented, ethical and compassionate leaders; they must have a deep understanding of the human condition, dynamics of complex communities, and the environment,” the letter said. “Our majors can only gain these critical skills if Marquette maintains its commitments to both teaching and research excellence in the humanities and social sciences. To reduce and undermine these strengths is not only a betrayal of Marquette’s Jesuit mission, but a betrayal of the students who chose to study the sciences in the context of a Jesuit commitment to liberal arts education.”

The Faculty Council also released an open letter Thursday, addressed to the Academic Senate, the Board of Trustees and the executive leadership team. The letter enumerated concerns about the budget cuts and Marquette’s historical spending patterns while proposing alternative ways to save money. The proposed budget cuts could impact Marquette’s ranking in U.S. News & World Report -- limiting its ability to survive a crisis, the council argued -- and declines in the quality of education could hurt tuition revenue.

Publicly available data the council collected shows Marquette outpacing Jesuit peers in increasing advertising, travel, office and consulting expenses, as well as compensation for upper administrators. The letter proposed several alternatives to planned budget cuts, such as cutting discretionary spending and selling property.

Marquette officials have previously said that comparisons to other Jesuit institutions are not worth much because of how different colleges and universities classify expenses. The scale of the projected shortfall, they have said, cannot be solved without cuts to academics.

Some faculty and instructors at Marquette have also been involved in an effort with peers at other Jesuit institutions to stop austerity at their colleges.

December 4, 2020

Samford University in Alabama is suing a former student for a 2019 prank that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of damage to a university-owned fraternity house, according to a lawsuit filed in Northern Alabama district court on Dec. 1.

John Brody Cantrell, the former student and a member of the Sigma Chi chapter that occupied the house, and Christopher Wilson, Cantrell’s friend, were in the attic of the house when Wilson stepped on and ruptured a sprinkler pipe and flooded the house, causing more than $400,000 worth of damage, the lawsuit states.

The university claims that Cantrell is liable for the damages due to his “negligence.” Wilson is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Cantrell “owed a duty of care to use and occupy the dorm room and fraternity house so as not to cause harm” to the property, according to the lawsuit. Samford requested that the case be heard in front of a jury.

December 4, 2020

The American Council on Education is building a network of colleges to work on transferring credit for students' prior learning experience.

The new network is supported with a $450,000 grant from the ECMC Foundation over two years, according to a news release.

It will provide students with options for portable digital credentials. Institutions that join the network will guarantee to accept the council's credit recommendations. Students with badges for prior learning credit will be able to connect with network colleges on Acclaim, a digital credentialing platform from Credly.

The project aims to help nontraditional, or post-traditional, learners, which include students over the age of 25, as well as those who are working full-time, financially independent or connected with the military. Nearly 60 percent of the undergraduate college population fits in one or more of these categories, according to the release.

These students often bring credits from several institutions or their life experiences. The council's program will focus on awarding credit for these prior experiences, including apprenticeships and corporate training.

“Students who forge a path towards an educational credential outside of the mainstream are dedicated, hardworking, and motivated, and colleges and universities must be willing to meet them halfway,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the council, in the release. “Through this project, ACE is moving ahead with the first step toward the revitalization of its credit for prior learning network and re-imagining how to best serve underserved learners.”

December 4, 2020

Goodwin University’s acquisition of the University of Bridgeport was approved by the New England Commission of Higher Education late last month, the regional accreditor announced Wednesday.

With continuing accreditation from NECHE, Bridgeport will be an “independent institution under the Goodwin University umbrella,” Mark Scheinberg, president of Goodwin, said in a press release. NECHE also reupped Goodwin’s accreditation last month.

Completion of the acquisition still hinges on approval from the Department of Education and programmatic accreditors.

The deal was first announced this summer as a transaction that would have had Sacred Heart University, Goodwin and the Paier College of Art each taking on several University of Bridgeport programs. But Sacred Heart withdrew this fall, leaving leaders to pursue a modified acquisition.

Paier, which is moving to acquire Bridgeport programs in graphic and interior design, is covered by another accreditor because it is a for-profit institution, the Connecticut Post reported. Programs Paier is acquiring cover about 200 students. Goodwin is taking on the remainder of Bridgeport, about 4,000 students.

December 4, 2020

Today on the Academic Minute, part of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Week, Malik Magdon-Ismail, professor of computer science, explains why it's important to predict how COVID-19 spreads. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

December 3, 2020

A federal judge on Tuesday set aside two Trump administration rules that narrowed eligibility for H-1B skilled worker visas and substantially increased wages for many H-1B holders. Colleges joined with businesses in suing to roll back the rules, which the Trump administration promulgated without normal notice-and-comment procedures, citing emergency circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White ruled that the government failed to demonstrate that the rise in domestic unemployment caused by the COVID pandemic justified skipping normal rule-making processes, concluding that the administration “failed to show there was good cause to dispense with the rational and thoughtful discourse that is provided by the APA's [Administrative Procedures Act's] notice and comment requirements.”

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