Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

January 27, 2017

A man wearing a swastika armband appeared at the University of Florida on Tuesday and Thursday, with his second visit setting off a sustained protest by students and faculty members who chanted their anger at him, The Gainesville Sun reported. The man stood silently as students said, "No more Nazis" (see video below). The Sun reported that the man, whom it did not name, was ruled incompetent to stand trial in 2013 on the grounds that he was mentally ill. After several hours, the man asked the university police department to escort him off campus. After he left the campus, two men in a pickup truck approached him and snatched his jacket with the swastika armband. Authorities are looking for the men.

Kent Fuchs, president of the university, issued a statement condemning the wearing of the swastika on campus. But he also said that the man's conduct was protected by the First Amendment. "Many people have contacted the university to ask that the individual be removed from campus," Fuchs said. "While I decry and denounce all symbols of hate, the individual, who is not a faculty, staff member or student, was expressing his First Amendment rights, and we could not legally remove him from public areas of campus."

January 27, 2017

Stanford University, Vanderbilt University and the University of California, Berkeley, are some of the recent institutions to see anti-Semitic fliers appear in campus printers and fax machines. The fliers feature swastikas and say "Samiz.dat [a reference to Soviet-era type of dissent] …. It’s almost here, we take power on the 20th," according to an NBC affiliate station in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A spokesperson for UC Berkeley said the university believes the fliers are connected to a similar incident last year when anti-Semitic fliers advertising a neo-Nazi website appeared in printers at more than a dozen colleges. Those fliers were not actually produced by someone on campus, but rather printed remotely by a white supremacist exploiting printers sitting on the open internet.

January 27, 2017

Western Michigan University is sharply cutting its quoted nonresident undergraduate tuition rates, attempting to boost recruitment beyond the state’s borders and breaking with a well-documented trend of many public colleges and universities balancing budgets by charging out-of-state students significantly higher prices.

The university’s Board of Trustees voted this week to set tuition for future nonresident undergraduates at 1.25 times the rate for Michigan residents. The lower rate, which kicks in for new students this summer, is a steep reduction from current published rates that have nonresident undergraduates paying 2.3 times the rate Michigan students pay.

While 2017-18 tuition rates have not been announced, the reduction would mean a new nonresident freshman or sophomore would pay less than $15,000 in basic annual tuition and fees -- down from $26,851 -- if the tuition rates are similar to those for 2016-17.

But the cuts may not be as drastic in dollars as they appear on paper. Nonresidents were already receiving large financial aid packages, cutting their effective cost of attendance to near the newly enacted rates.

“The new basic rates that are set at 1.25 times resident rates will align incoming nonresident student costs with the net effective costs our current nonresidents are paying after financial aid packages are factored in,” said Jan Van Der Kley, Western Michigan’s vice president for business and finance, in a university news release. “We'll be able to recruit students with a more reasonable published nonresident cost that leaves a more favorable perception and keeps us in the mix when those students are making their college selection.”

The changes are intended to allow Western Michigan to better compete for out-of-state students, as the number of Michigan high school graduates is projected to fall precipitously over the next decade. Western Michigan’s fall 2016 enrollment dropped 1.3 percent to 23,252. Michigan residents made up 86 percent of the student body.

The changes only apply to new undergraduates. Currently enrolled students will continue to pay tuition and fees based on the current ratio. The changes do not affect graduate students.

Western Michigan noted that it follows a liberal residency policy, allowing many students to become Michigan residents and qualify for in-state rates. But that policy will change for newly enrolled students starting this summer. They will no longer have the option of changing their residency status at the university.

January 27, 2017

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is engaging in a strategic review that will include weighing mergers and closings among its 14 universities, officials said Thursday.

Currently, the state system’s organizational structure, funding and operations are unsustainable, Chancellor Frank T. Brogan said, according to prepared remarks delivered in an annual State of the System address. He noted that many state higher education systems are confronting financial issues and enrollment challenges by looking at mergers or closures.

“Is that were we are headed? That’s a question I can’t answer today, nor can anyone else,” Brogan said. “But it is a question we must ask -- and answer -- this year.”

Pennsylvania is increasing its appropriation to its higher education system this year. But system Board of Governors Chair Cynthia D. Shapira noted in remarks that the system is receiving $60 million less from the state than it did before the recession.

The system has 105,000 students across its campuses but has experienced five consecutive years of enrollment declines. This is the first time the state system of higher education has considered options like mergers or closures in its 35-year history, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

January 27, 2017

When provided with specific information on what their monthly payments would be, more than half of students and parents in a national survey said they would prefer using an income-share agreement to traditional student loans for financing a college education, according to an American Enterprise Institute report released Thursday.

AEI commissioned the survey to learn more about attitudes toward alternative financial products for borrowers who would otherwise take out student loans.

Income-share agreements would require that students pay a percentage of their income for a set number of years. That arrangement contrasts with student loans, which borrowers pay back in fixed monthly amounts no matter their income. The federal government has steered a growing number of student loan borrowers toward income-driven repayment plans in recent years. But borrowers still accrue interest they must pay back under those plans. ISAs would not charge interest.

Income-share agreements wouldn't be without risk for borrowers. Whereas student loans can become burdensome for borrowers who do not earn enough to make their monthly payments, students who take out ISAs could end up paying more than they borrowed if they earn a higher income.

AEI surveyed 400 college and high school students and 400 parents of current and future college students. The results of the survey did not reveal that income or other factors predicted whether someone was more likely to favor an ISA over a student loan. More respondents were inclined to prefer the income-share agreements to student loans after receiving information about what they would pay each month in various income brackets. Financial products like ISAs are receiving more focus from policy analysts interested in what would happen if the federal government were to scale back its role in student lending.

January 27, 2017

Today on the Academic Minute: Nicholas Leadbeater, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut, discusses a use for laughing gas that might not immediately come to mind. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

January 26, 2017

Days after the Women's March on Washington and allied marches around the country produced possibly the largest demonstration in U.S. history, scientists began discussing the possibility of their own march on Washington, D.C., in response to steps taken by the Trump administration.

A date hasn't been set, but those discussions had drawn the interest of 64,000 Twitter followers by Wednesday afternoon and buzz elsewhere online. Caroline Weinberg, a public health researcher and one of the organizers involved in planning the March for Science, said the motivation was straightforward.

"Scientists worldwide have been alarmed by the clear anti-science actions taken by the Trump administration," she said. "It has been less than a week, and there have already been funding freezes and efforts to restrict scientists from communicating their findings (from tax-funded research!) with the public. These actions are absurd and cannot be allowed to stand as policy. This is not a partisan issue -- people from all parts of the political spectrum should be alarmed by these efforts to deny scientific progress. Scientific research moves us forward, and we should not allow asinine policies to thwart it."

The administration drew alarm from some quarters Tuesday over reports that staff at several agencies involved in science and research had been instructed to stop communications on their work with the public. And Wednesday the Associated Press reported that Environmental Protection Agency staff had been told scientific studies and data must undergo review by political staff before release.

Weinberg said organizers of the March for Science would meet Jan. 28 to develop a mission statement and to discuss how to make sure the event is diverse and inclusive.

"Diversity in science -- both in the researchers who participate and the topics we are focused on -- is a critically neglected area," she said. "We fully intend to emphasize diversity in both the planning of and mission statement for this march."

January 26, 2017

A National Labor Relations Board regional director has ruled that Yale University graduate students who are teaching assistants may have nine separate votes on unions in various departments. Yale opposed the approach, saying that the graduate students should vote as a group. A statement Yale released Wednesday night reiterated the university's position, but said "we assume that these nine independent elections will proceed." The votes will now take place in the departments of East Asian languages and literatures, English, geology and geophysics, history, history of art, mathematics, physics, political science, and sociology. A majority vote in each department will decide whether there is a union in that department.

Wednesday night's statement, from Lynn Cooley, dean of the graduate school, expressed concern that this approach was "insufficiently democratic, and contrary to the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration that is such a hallmark of the graduate school."

The union, Unite Here, issued a statement praising the decision. "This moment has been a long time coming," the union statement said. "Winning our elections gives us the legal right to negotiate on the issues that matter to us -- from improved health care and equal pay for equal work to equity for women and people of color and affordable child care."

January 26, 2017

College students across the country are taking the bait on an employment scam that gives scammers access to their bank accounts, according to an announcement from the FBI.

The scammers send out emails and post advertisements for job openings, typically recruiting students to take on administrative positions. During the hiring process, students are told they need to purchase certain equipment or supplies for the new job, and the “employer” will send a counterfeit check to reimburse them for the materials. After the student deposits the check, they are asked to send a portion of the money from their checking account to a third party.

The FBI included several examples of the email instructions from scammers in its public service announcement.

  • "You will need some materials/software and also a time tracker to commence your training and orientation and also you need the software to get started with work. The funds for the software will be provided for you by the company via check. Make sure you use them as instructed for the software and I will refer you to the vendor you are to purchase them from, okay."
  • "I have forwarded your start-up progress report to the HR Dept. and they will be facilitating your start-up funds with which you will be getting your working equipment from vendors and getting started with training."
  • "Enclosed is your first check. Please cash the check, take $300 out as your pay, and send the rest to the vendor for supplies."

After a student completes all of these steps, the results can be damaging -- they would need to reimburse the bank for the amount of the counterfeit checks, their bank account could be closed, their credit score could drop and they could be vulnerable to identity theft after divulging personal information to the scammers.

The FBI is encouraging students to report suspicious emails to their institution’s IT department and the FBI. The bureau also advises students never to accept a job that asks them to deposit or wire money.

January 26, 2017

Harvard University's investment branch plans to cut half of its 230 employees as it puts in place a new strategy and seeks to change following recent poor investment performance.

The Harvard Management Co. will move away from its unusual strategy of using a combination of in-house and external fund managers, according to the Harvard Gazette. The moves are an effort to cut costs and improve performance, The Boston Globe reported in a story first covered by The Wall Street Journal. Different investment teams will lose their jobs at various times in the upcoming year.

Harvard's direct real estate investing group will begin managing for Harvard as an outside firm. Timber and natural resources portfolios will continue to be managed internally.

The investment arm's compensation structure is also slated to change from one in which managers are compensated based on the performance of their own investments to one where they are compensated based on the endowment's overall performance.

Harvard owns the largest endowment in the country, with funds worth $35.7 billion. But it posted a 2 percent annual investment loss last year. Poor returns in recent years, combined with Harvard Management Co. bringing in former Columbia University Investment Management Co. CEO N. P. Narvekar as its new CEO in September, prompted speculation that major changes were in store.

Endowed funds provided more than a third of Harvard's $4.8 billion budget last year, contributing $1.7 billion.

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