Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

March 12, 2019

The U.S. Department of Labor is seeking to make more than a million more workers eligible for overtime by increasing the mandatory salary threshold from $455 to $679 per week ($23,660 to $35,308).

If the salary level change goes through, white-collar employees at colleges and universities who make less than $35,308 a year would be eligible for overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Postdoctoral researchers, librarians, financial aid administrators, admissions officers, coaches and IT workers are among campus workers who could be affected by the new threshold.

The Obama administration had sought to double the salary threshold for the white-collar overtime exemption for executive, administrative and professional workers to about $913 per week ($47,000 annually). College leaders and higher education groups were among many employers who complained about the financial impact of such a change. A federal judge blocked the Obama administration rule shortly before it was to take effect.

March 12, 2019

The Department of Education on Monday proposed to eliminate or substantially alter the existing federal definition of a credit hour, following several rounds of criticism for previous similar proposals.

According to federal rules established during the Obama administration, one credit hour amounts to one hour of in-class instruction and two hours of additional student work per week. The definition helps the department determine whether an academic program qualifies for federal financial aid.

In January, at the start of a months-long process reviewing federal regulations around accreditation and innovation, the department proposed to eliminate that definition, instead giving accreditors and institutions more freedom to evaluate student progress.

That proposal was widely criticized, prompting department officials to assure observers that the credit-hour standard will stand, if modified.

But yesterday, the department resurfaced its proposal to eliminate from the definition any mention of hours in or out of class. Instead, the department would allow institutions and their accreditors to define “a reasonable approximation of an amount of student work.” Decision makers would be required to “take into account alternative delivery methods, measurements of student work, academic calendars, disciplines and degree levels,” according to page five of the newly proposed regulations.

The proposal came during a meeting of online learning experts aiming to make recommendations on a wide range of federal rule changes. Most members of that group rejected the department’s new language.

“I think we’re stripping away a tool that has given accreditation some teeth to question the type of academic work that’s going into the credit hour,” said Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission -- one of the organizations that, under proposed rules, would be tasked with litigating credit-hour definitions.

Later in yesterday’s meeting, department officials returned with a compromise proposal from agency leaders: remove the requirement for out-of-class instruction, but retain the requirement for one hour of in-class instruction, as well as language offering more flexibility to institutions and accreditors.

“The two hours of out-of-class work is rather intangible. It’s rather impossible to categorize whether or not that’s taking place,” said Gregory Martin, the department official who led Monday’s meeting. “The one hour [of in-class time] we’re OK with, given the fact that that’s generally how classes are set up at most institutions.”

The response from distance education subcommittee members, once again, was largely negative. Department officials agreed to forward their concerns to the main rule-making committee, which meets later this month.

March 12, 2019

A new paper from the Manhattan Institute looks at the small but growing number of income-share agreements in higher education, which give students the option of using some of their postgraduate income to help pay for college. The ISA model "transfers risk from the student to the investor," the paper said, noting that under the agreements the average student repays less than they would under a traditional student loan.

The institute described opportunities and barriers for expanding income-share agreements, concluding that the U.S. Congress should provide legal clarity as well as flexibility for experimentation.

March 12, 2019

Twenty-one U.S. colleges and universities are working together to train a new generation of civic-minded technologists and tech-savvy policy makers.

The Public Interest Technology University Network, announced yesterday, is supported by the Ford Foundation, New America and the Hewlett Foundation. (Read an opinion piece by the leaders of these organizations about the new network today.)

The network will support curriculum development and faculty hiring in the nascent field of public interest technology. It will also explore how to support graduates who pursue careers in this field and create new internships and fellowships.

Institutional members include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Howard University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the City University of New York, among others.

March 12, 2019

In today's Academic Minute, William Church of Trinity College in Connecticut examines the importance of early detection of Parkinson's disease. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

March 11, 2019

The Trump administration will today release its proposals for the federal budget. Leaked information to several news outlets says that spending outside of the military will be cut by 5 percent. That likely means cuts or flat budgets at best proposed for many of the programs that provide funds to colleges, students and researchers. While the plan is being called "dead on arrival," it is being released at a time when Republicans in the Senate are professing more concern over the deficit than they did last year, when they voted for a massive tax cut.

Politico reported that the plan will seek to hold colleges and universities "accountable" by having them share some of the financial burden of student loans. The concept of "risk sharing" on student loans has some congressional support, but some Democrats and college leaders fear that changes in the loan rules are likely to have a negative impact at institutions that serve many low-income students.

Inside Higher Ed will report on the various proposals.

March 11, 2019

A University of Kansas professor says he was suspended from teaching a course after he told a student to “learn English,” the Lawrence Journal-World reported. Gary Minden, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, said he made the comment because a student was using a translator on a cell phone. He said other students -- not the student he addressed -- took offense, and it led to an “hourlong discussion.”

“A number of students have raised concerns about events that occurred in their engineering class,” a university spokeswoman said. “In response to these concerns, the university has assigned a different instructor to teach the course while the matter is reviewed.”

March 11, 2019

William C. Powers Jr., (at right) who was president of the University of Texas at Austin from 2006 to 2015, died Saturday. A university announcement said that he died "from complications from a fall several months earlier and from oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, a rare adult-onset muscle disorder."

While Powers was president, he fended off a series of challenges from regents and politicians -- many allies of Rick Perry, then governor -- that academics saw as a threat to the autonomy and values of the university. Gregory L. Fenves, the current president, said in a statement that "Bill was an eloquent and fierce champion for UT students, faculty and staff. Never was this more evident than in the early and mid-2010s, when Bill put every ounce of himself into defending the soul of our university."

March 11, 2019

A new coalition of leaders from 18 education organizations, dubbed Level Up, is seeking to alleviate the "stubborn misalignment between K-12 and higher education that too often derails U.S. students from earning a postsecondary degree or credential and becoming economically self-sufficient." The group wants to measurably increase numbers of high school students, particularly from underrepresented groups, who are prepared for and successfully complete postsecondary education and training programs. It will seek to do so through direct support and research, as well by supporting policies.

"We owe it to all students to not add burdens, frustrations and inefficiencies to their pursuit of something our society very much needs them to do: complete high school, earn a high-quality postsecondary certificate or degree, and enter the work force with the skills necessary to meaningfully contribute," the coalition said in a new report.

March 11, 2019

The education committee of the Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives this week will begin a series of five hearings on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the law that governs federal financial aid. On Friday the committee's Democratic leadership released a paper describing their vision for updating the law, as well arguments for the continued value of a college credential and criticism for low-quality offerings from for-profit institutions.

"More than 50 years after the initial passage of the HEA, America still falls short of the law’s original promise to open the door to and extend the benefit of higher education to all students," the report said. "The next reauthorization of the HEA should aim to finally close those gaps in access, affordability and completion that continue to prevent so many students from fulfilling their greatest potential."

The law should support dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students, simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, increase grant aid for students, strengthen institutional quality and accountability, improve the postsecondary data infrastructure, and include investments in childcare and mental health services, the report said, among other proposals.

The report gives substantial space to backing bipartisan proposals to expand Pell Grant eligibility for short-term certificate programs. However, Democrats cautioned that such an expansion must guard against "weak policies that enable for-profit institutions to administer programs that result in low wages and high default rates on student loans."

They also said short-term certificate programs must be designed to be "stackable" and serve as a starting point for associate and four-year degrees. "Although not every student will want to pursue a degree beyond a certificate," the report said, "those who do should be able to apply their certificate toward a more advanced degree, especially if the certificate was funded with federal student aid."

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