Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

September 2, 2016

Graduate student workers' newly won right to unionize at private universities is a ding on those institutions' credit, Moody's Investors Service said Thursday.

Moody's called last week's National Labor Relations Board ruling, which awarded the unionization rights, a credit negative. That means it is one of many credit factors affecting institutions but is not a change in any credit rating or outlook.

The ruling comes at a time of increased financial stress for institutions. Research funding costs are increasing, tuition prices are under pressure and endowments face declines in value, Moody's said. Graduate students are also becoming more important to higher education's business model. However, the ratings agency went on to note that large, research-intensive universities will be most affected by the ruling -- and those institutions tend to be wealthier and are best situated to absorb higher costs and wages from unionization.

Since most graduate student assistants are enrolled at public universities governed by state labor law and not covered under the ruling, the NLRB's decision affects fewer than 78,000 graduate assistants, Moody's estimated. It said about 40 percent of graduate assistants in private higher education are at just 10 universities: Boston, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Yale Universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Southern California. Increasing the average wage for graduate teaching assistants at those universities would cost each one between $7 million and $11 million annually, Moody's estimated. The increase would be the equivalent of less than 1 percent of each institution's operating expenses.

However, Moody's also pointed out that institutions more moderate in size and means will be pushed to boost their graduate assistant compensation to keep up with larger competitors.

"Increased graduate assistant compensation or a material change in workload could cause modest pressure on operating performance," Moody's wrote. "Since universities with large graduate populations tend to compete nationally, if not internationally, the actions of their peers will outweigh regional standards in shaping the potential financial effects."

September 2, 2016

Four months after pro-Palestine protestors derailed a campus event at San Francisco State University by shouting down the mayor of Jerusalem, the university has released a report about how the incident was mishandled.

"The report makes exceptionally clear that the responsibility for the inadequate response prior to, during and following the event falls squarely on the shoulders of San Francisco State University administrators," Les Wong, the university's president, said in a campuswide email Thursday. "On April 6, we failed our students -- both the event attendees and the protesters -- through multiple inactions."

According to the report, which was compiled by an outside law firm hired by the university, those inactions included not providing enough lead time to properly plan the event, not clarifying whether the event should be open or closed and not adequately intervening once the protestors began chanting.

While San Francisco State's chief of police attempted to quiet the demonstrators, he was dressed in plain clothes and students said they did not realize he was acting on behalf of police or the university. The report also faulted the university's student affairs officials for not stepping in during the event and for not adequately handling student conduct decisions following the protest. "It seemed I did not get much support from student affairs," the chief of police told the law firm. "We are usually a team and one united voice. Where here, I was the only one saying stop."

The university on Thursday announced a series of changes to how it will handle demonstrations in the future, including providing training to police officers and student affairs employees and adopting a clearer policy for when students who disrupt an event should be punished by the university or arrested by police.

"Ensuring our campus is a safe environment for all students is my top priority for the coming year," Wong said. "We will continue to monitor the campus climate, and we will make every effort to respond to student concerns in a timely fashion. We will work to build trust with our students and the broader community so that we can fully embody our institutional mission and our values."

September 2, 2016

Gordon College has reached a settlement with Lauren Barthold, a tenured professor who will resign her position as part of the agreement, The Salem News reported. Barthold sued the college in April, saying that she had been demoted and that her job was threatened because she spoke out against Gordon policies that discriminate against gay people.

September 2, 2016

Today on the Academic Minute, Robert Edgell, professor of technology management at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, details how artificial intelligence can help keep you on the right dietary track. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

September 1, 2016

A partnership between Amazon and Wells Fargo that offered discounted student loan interest rates to Amazon Prime Student members has ended, the online retailer said.

The promotion, which was announced in July, made those Prime members eligible for a 0.5 percentage point reduction on interest rates for private student loans taken out through Wells Fargo Education Financial Services. Deborah Bass, a spokeswoman for the online retailer, said that the promotion had ended but did not offer a reason for the move.  

Pauline Abernathy, executive vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, welcomed the end of the deal in a statement. "Private loans are one of the riskiest ways to pay for college, with none of the flexible repayment options and consumer protections that come with federal student loans," she said. TICAS and other student advocate groups have pointed out that students under 24 can borrow up to $31,000 in aggregate federal student loans. Other higher ed policy experts say that there's nothing wrong with taking out private student loans to pay for the cost of college above the federal borrowing limit. But more than one questioned why Amazon would get involved with the student loan sector when the promotion was announced. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct information about the federal loan limits.)

The Wells Fargo student loan division in August was hit with a $3.6 million penalty by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in August after the agency identified practices that unfairly increased costs and penalized student borrowers. 

September 1, 2016

Trigger warnings — cues professors may give students to alert them to potentially troubling material — remain divisive. But most professors who don’t like trigger warnings don’t include them in their syllabi. Not Peter Schwartz, a professor of engineering at Auburn University, who mimicked the medium to critique it. "TRIGGER WARNING: physics, trigonometry, sine, cosine, tangent, vector, force, work, energy, stress, quiz, grade,” reads the top of his syllabus for his fall course in the fundamentals of engineering. Schwartz told AL.com this week that he finds trigger warnings “silly.”

"I think trigger warnings are a joke to begin with and I wanted to see what one might look like in an engineering course,” he said. “Looks kind of silly, doesn't it?” Schwartz told AL.com that he’d gotten very little feedback thus far on the mock-warning, either good or bad. Auburn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

September 1, 2016

Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, Ohio, is opening up its online courses to the more than 1.6 million members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and their families, according to Cleveland.com. The community college will offer the courses for free, offering last-dollar scholarships to cover tuition costs beyond what federal aid and support from the union pays for. Eastern Gateway currently offers three online associate degree programs, with a fourth in the works. Community college officials said they believe the college-union partnership is the first of its kind.

September 1, 2016

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released some comparative data to mark the start of a new academic year. From January 2006 to July 2016, the Consumer Price Index for college tuition and fees increased 63 percent. That compares to 21 percent for all items. During the same period, consumer prices for college textbooks increased 88 percent.


September 1, 2016

Massive open online course platform Coursera on Wednesday announced the launch of a workforce development platform, Coursera for Business. The platform will offer many of the same courses found on Coursera's learner-facing platform, but "curated" to a company's training needs, according to the website. Axis Bank, BNY Mellon and L’Oréal are some of Coursera's first corporate customers. Coursera last year suggested that corporate training represented a lucrative market for the company. Speaking to Inside Higher Ed in February 2015, CEO Rick Levin said the company was building a business model around course sequences, corporate partnerships and on-demand content.

September 1, 2016

The National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Jed Foundation on Wednesday released a new guide about mental health for students and their parents. Called Starting the Conversation: College and Your Mental Health, the guide is designed to help parents and other family members discuss mental health issues with their children before they leave for college. The guide includes information on prevalence of mental health conditions, warning signs, mental health care on campuses, and health and privacy laws.

Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton unveiled her proposals to improve mental health services in the United States. The plan, which the Jed Foundation helped create, included urging colleges to "have a comprehensive strategy to prevent suicide, including counseling, training for personnel, and policies that enable students to take leave for mental health."


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