Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

November 20, 2013

The U.S. Education Department announced Tuesday its plan to convene a panel of negotiators to hammer out new regulations on how colleges disburse federal student aid and rewrite a controversial rule requiring online programs to obtain permission from each state in which they enroll students.

The negotiated rule making committee is also expected to tackle the underwriting standards for PLUS loans, the conversion of clock hours to credit hours when awarding credit, and rules governing when a student can receive federal aid for repeated coursework, according to a notice set to appear in Wednesday’s Federal Register.

The department plans to appoint negotiators who represent various constituencies, including students, consumer advocates, businesses, state officials and representatives from different types of institutions. It is currently seeking nominations for members of the committee. The panel will meet for three, three-day sessions in February, March and April, the department said.

The list of topics announced Tuesday, while tentative, largely round out the remaining issues that the Obama administration had announced as regulatory priorities for its second term. The department has already announced its plan to hold a separate negotiated rule making session in January to write new campus safety rules. It is also in the process of negotiating a rewrite of the “gainful employment” rules on for-profit and community colleges that a federal judge blocked earlier this year. That committee met Tuesday for its penultimate day of negotiations and appears destined to finish its work without reaching consensus on a set of rules, leaving the department in the position of being able to impose its own rules.

November 20, 2013

A senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee wants to hear more about adjunct professors' working conditions. Through an "eForum" announced Tuesday, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) will investigate the effect of increased employment of adjunct faculty on their quality of life, as well as on student learning. In a news release, Miller said there was a "huge lack of understanding" about what it means to be adjunct.

“We should all be alarmed about what’s been happening to higher education labor over the last couple decades,” he said. “Tuition keeps skyrocketing. Yet the people doing the bulk of the work educating college students are getting less and less compensation. There are adjuncts who make between $2,000 and $3,000 per course for a semester, with no benefits. There are adjuncts on food stamps. I think the Congress should be taking a serious look at this phenomenon.”

Miller asked adjuncts to share their stories on the forum website, answering the following questions:

  • For how long have you worked as a contingent faculty or instructor?
  • How would you describe the working conditions of contingent faculty and instructors at your college or university, including matters like compensation, benefits, opportunities for growth and advancement, job stability, and administrative and professional support?
  • How do those conditions help or hinder your ability to earn a living and have a stable and successful career in higher education? What impact, if any, do those working conditions have on students or higher education generally?
  • How do those working conditions help or hinder your ability to do your job, or how do they otherwise affect students in achieving their educational goals?

Miller was among several lawmakers who last week expressed interest in hearing more about adjunct employment issues during a committee hearing on the effects of the Affordable Care Act on higher education. Their comments came following testimony by Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization. She spoke about how many institutions have cut their maximum course loads for adjuncts ahead of the health care law taking effect, to avoid having to offer coverage to adjuncts qualifying as full-time employees, or pay a fine (as highlighted in Inside Higher Ed's recent survey of campus human resources officers. In an email, Maisto said she was "thrilled" that Miller had followed up so quickly with the eForum announcement.

"I think that this will be a terrific way for the committee to collect more information confirming what I testified about last week -- the appalling conditions of adjunct and contingent faculty and the repercussions for students and for the country, especially as the cost of college is skyrocketing," she said. "Of course we have volumes and volumes of stories and research, as well, and we will be happy to share that with the committee."
 

November 20, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania explains how the fossilization process can make individual fossils hard to interpret. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

November 20, 2013

After distancing campus administrators from a "catch an illegal immigrant" game put on by the University of Texas at Austin's Young Conservatives of Texas chapter, UT President Bill Powers supported the group's decision to cancel the event Tuesday. "The University of Texas at Austin honors the right of free speech for all students," Powers said in a statement. "We welcome the Young Conservatives of Texas' decision to cancel Wednesday's event and look forward to the group being part of a thoughtful campus discussion about immigration."

The event, which drew criticism online, was planned for Wednesday. To raise awareness of illegal immigration, the event organizer said, students would search the campus for people wearing clothes that said "illegal immigrant," then apprehend them to win a $25 gift card.

November 20, 2013

California Rep. Linda T. Sánchez asked the National Collegiate Athletic Association to "review its concussion policy and take stronger measures to protect the safety of its students." Officials said her letter to the NCAA was prompted by the death of a football player at Frostburg State University, whose family is suing the coaches and NCAA in part over their ignorance of head trauma.

"Student athletes deserve to know that there are policies in place that will protect them in the event they suffer an injury on the field. Concussions can happen to an athlete of any age, any league, and any sport,” Sánchez said in a statement. “These young people might play in non-revenue sports, but that does not mean they should be ignored. My hope is that the NCAA will further focus on head injuries and develop safety plans that encompass all sports, not just football.”

The NCAA requires colleges to have concussion management plans, which include education and treatment requirements and are not limited to football, but does not ensure that the plans are followed. It has made some rules changes in football to reduce head contact, but some argue the NCAA should do more.


 

November 20, 2013

The Big 12 Conference this week launched a three-year marketing campaign that uses its member institutions' athletic visibility to promote academic research and achievements. The campaign includes a website and individual public service announcements for Big 12 universities during nationally televised conference football games. In conjunction with football media days next summer (a sort of preview of the teams and season to come), the Big 12 will host "the first in a series" of scholastic conferences, featuring faculty, students and graduates from the universities.

“When considered collectively, Big 12 universities educate more than 293,000 students annually, giving them the skills and knowledge to contribute to a better workforce, build stronger communities and tackle local and global challenges,” Burns Hargis, president of Oklahoma State University and chairman of the Big 12 Conference Board of Directors, said in a statement. “This campaign is our opportunity to celebrate the significance of that mission while showcasing the vibrancy of our conference-wide academics – as evidenced by the unique accomplishments of each school.”

November 20, 2013

The head of the group that represents North Carolina community colleges trustees is also a higher education headhunter, the Raleigh News & Observer reported this week.

The newspaper said the North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees President Donny Hunter has interests that are "difficult to untangle." The paper said tax records show Hunter is paid $105,000 to be the association's president but also received nearly $118,000 from the association for services that included headhunting. Hunter said there is not a conflict of interest.

November 20, 2013

California Competes, a nonprofit group, has unveiled an online, interactive data tool that charts community college enrollment and degree production rates across California's 1,700 ZIP codes. The group's director, Robert Shireman, a former official with the U.S. Department of Education, said during a phone call with reporters that the map helps identify areas where higher education needs aren't being met. For example, he said Los Angeles would need to add the equivalent of four Santa Monica Colleges if its community college-going rates were as high as Orange County's.

November 19, 2013

Sebastian Thrun, founder of the massive open online course provider Udacity, is no stranger to controversy. The Stanford University research professor and Google fellow has previously said higher education in 50 years will be provided by no more than 10 institutions worldwide, and Udacity could be one of them. Thrun dropped another bombshell last week in a profile published in Fast Company, which claimed the “godfather of free online education” had changed course. “The man who started this revolution no longer believes the hype,” the article read. Instead of teaching hundreds of thousands of students in one session, Udacity’s future could look something like the company’s partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology and AT&T to create a low-cost master’s degree.

In reality, Thrun’s shift is more nuanced. Call it a refinement -- not a loss of faith.

“I am much more upbeat than the article suggests,” Thrun said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Over the summer, we had students pay for services wrapped around our open classes, and the results were about [20 times] better when compared to students just taking open MOOCs. We have now built the necessary infrastructure to bring this model to more students, while keeping all materials open and free of charge as in the past.”

Some critics of Thrun’s vision interpreted the article as a bit of poetic justice:

“After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed,” wrote George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. “This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs. Thrun tied his fate too early to VC funding. As a result, Udacity is now driven by revenue pursuits, not innovation.”

Beyond schadenfreude, many responses cautioned against taking the profile as a sign that Thrun was abandoning higher education:

“It’s tempting to say good riddance,” wrote Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver.

“Thrun can’t build a bucket that doesn’t leak, so he’s going to sell sieves,” Caulfield wrote. “Udacity dithered for a bit on whether it would be accountable for student outcomes. Failures at San Jose State put an end to that. The move now is to return to the original idea: high failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers. Thrun is moving to an area where he is unaccountable, because accountability is hard.”

Others said the profile marked a premature obituary for MOOCs, which exploded onto the higher education stage as recently as in 2012:

“After a long period of unbridled optimism and world-changing claims about the transformative potential of MOOCs, journalists are now proclaiming that MOOCs are dead, or at the very least broken,” wrote Shriya Nevatia, an undergraduate at Tufts University. “This is extremely dangerous. Instead of companies taking their ambitious proclamations and working hard to make them true, they say that MOOCs have failed, before they’ve even had a chance.”

Among MOOC skeptics, Audrey Watters, an education writer (and blogger for Inside Higher Ed), cautioned against thinking the format is dead:

“The Fast Company article serves as the latest round in MOOC hagiography: Thrun, the patron saint of higher education disruption,” Watters wrote. “And whether you see today’s Fast Company article as indication of a ‘pivot’ or not, I think it’s a mistake to cheer this moment as Udacity’s admission of failure and as an indication that it intends to move away from university disruption.... So yeah, perhaps it’s easy for many in higher education to shrug and sigh with relief that Thrun has decided to set his sights elsewhere. But if we care about learning -- if we care about learners -- I think we need to maintain our fierce critiques about MOOCs.”

November 19, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Brian Toon of the University of Colorado Boulder reveals how a weaker sun could have supported early life on Earth. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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