Higher Education Quick Takes
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s tuition reimbursement program, which pays for employees to take college-level courses, has garnered some criticism from an Iowa senator who said the agency doesn’t provide students with enough information about college options. WMATA -- which is funded by the federal government, the District of Columbia, and state and local jurisdictions -- spent almost $500,000 on the program in fiscal year 2010, according to The Washington Times.
“I am increasingly concerned that many government agencies, not just WMATA, are using taxpayer dollars to send students to low-quality, high-cost for-profit colleges with terrible student outcomes,” said Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, in a statement. “Most troubling is that these agencies do not provide students with sufficient information to protect themselves or perform adequate due diligence regarding the schools’ value.”
According to The Washington Times, which received documents about the program from an open records request, many WMATA employees opted to take courses at for-profit institutions, such as the University of Phoenix and Strayer University. Employees also took courses at some area institutions, such as the University of Maryland University College and Prince George's County College.
The documents also revealed that some employees took courses with no apparent professional correlation -- on video games, black history and parenting, for example.
Three faculty members at the University of the District of Columbia obtained Ph.D.s from what critics call a diploma mill -- an unaccredited institution that requires relatively little work to earn a degree -- according to Fox News. The professors, in the university’s criminal justice department, received the degrees from Commonwealth Open University, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands and claims to be accredited by the Wiener School for Advanced Studies on Global Education and Distance Learning.
The university is not recognized by a recognized accrediting agency in the United States or Britain, and it is not recognized by the Department of Education to receive federal financial aid, either.
Alan Etter, vice president of university relations and public affairs at the University of D.C., wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that the university is looking into the legitimacy of Commonwealth Open University and the professors’ relationships with it, and administrators want to understand the questions surrounding the professors' degrees before making any judgments.
“The professors in question are all productive, have good histories and are committed to student achievement,” he wrote, adding that the university considers more than academic credentials when hiring faculty.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Friday that an ordinance of Michigan State University -- which states that "no person shall disrupt the normal activity" of a university employee -- is unconstitutional because it is too broad, The Detroit Free Press reported. The case started with a challenge by a student who was cited for violating the ordinance after a nonviolent dispute with an employee charged with enforcing parking rules. The state's high court ruled that the ordinance was so broad that it covers constitutionally protected speech.
The biggest factor in setting the pay levels of for-profit CEOs is corporate profitability, according to the preliminary findings of an investigation by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. Cummings examined the compensation of executives at 13 publicly traded for-profits, asking for documentation on whether the companies linked executive pay to the performance of students. Only three companies provided specific references to how they weigh student achievement in setting compensation, according to a statement from Cummings.
The University of Oxford, responding to concerns about equity for transgender students, has dropped the dress code that has been in place for students at some formal academic events, BBC News reported. The current rules, which will end August 4, require male students to wear a dark suit, black shoes and a white bow tie and a plain white shirt and collar under their black gowns. Women must wear a dark skirt or trousers and a white blouse. The rules were criticized as forcing transgender students into traditional gender roles.
A faculty study of athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has called for an outside review of the relationship between athletics and academics at the university, The News and Observer reported. The panel concluded that recent scandals were not isolated incidents, but reflected broader problems, such as poor oversight, improper roles for athletes' academic counselors and a culture in which faculty members feel shut out of decisions about athletics programs.
Louisburg College, a private two-year institution in North Carolina, wants to move the grave of its first president (who died in 1809) to a site on campus, but the relatives of the first president don't like the idea, WRAL News reported. Louisburg officials feel that the current grave site is in a cemetery that has been neglected. But family members say that moving the first president's grave will disrupt the resting spots of other relatives as well.
Moody's Investors Service's U.S. Higher Education Mid-Year Outlook, released Thursday, paints a grim picture for higher education in which existing challenges of heightened competition for students, declining revenue sources, and backlogged maintenance get worse, while new problems emerge.
Problems that the ratings agency sees on the horizon for higher education institutions include the following:
- Based on poor returns in financial markets, Moody's expects that after endowment spending is accounted for, endowment portfolios will decline for fiscal year 2012, the first decline since 2009.
- An increase in outcomes-driven state and federal funding, federal regulation, re-examination of the tax-exempt status for nonprofit universities, and a demand for better disclosure for all universities.
- An increased level of political attention on affordability in higher education and student loan burdens through the presidential election.
- A greater number of warnings and sanctions imposed by accreditation agencies as those organizations seek to avoid tighter regulations from Congress.
The agency says public colleges and universities will have to shift toward a more market-driven approach rather than continuing to act as state agencies, "which means accelerating the pace of tuition increases or enrolling a higher percentage of out-of-state students, and adjusting their operating models to allow for surpluses that can be carried over as cash reserves." The conflict between that model and public pressure to continue to act as low-cost institutions with a public mission of accessibility is likely to lead to more conflicts between boards, administrators, and faculty members similar to what transpired at the University of Virginia last month.