Nelnet announced on Friday that it had agreed to settle a federal False Claims Act lawsuit that accused the company (along with other student loan providers) of taking advantage of a loophole in federal law to derive hundreds of millions of dollars in excess federal subsidies. The company, without admitting liability, tentatively agreed to pay $55 million to settle claims by a former federal worker that Nelnet, Sallie Mae, and others had illegally profited from a provision in federal law that allowed them to continue to make loans for which they were guaranteed an interest rate return of 9.5 percent. It was not clear as of Sunday if other lenders in the case had reached similar settlements, but the Journal-Star of Lincoln, Neb., reported that the judge in the case had issued an order Friday canceling a trial that was set to begin tomorrow.
Higher Education Quick Takes
The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday ordered raises of 7 percent for the past academic year (awarded retroactively) and 4 percent for the new academic year for faculty members at Chadron State, Peru State and Wayne State Colleges, The Omaha World-Herald reported. The court ruled because of an impasse between the faculty union, affiliated with the National Education Association, which has been pushing for the raises, and the state college system, which said that they couldn't be afforded. The Supreme Court ruling upheld findings of the state's Commission on Industrial Relations, which had called for the raises to be awarded. State college officials said that paying for the raises could lead to serious budget cuts, potentially including layoffs.
The American Council on Education and other higher education groups urged federal health officials Thursday to clarify that comprehensive student health plans would qualify as "minimum essential coverage" under the recently enacted health care reform law. In a letter signed by 13 groups, ACE asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy-Ann DeParle, head of the White House health reform office, to clarify in regulation that student health plans would not be considered expensive individual plans in a way that could force their price to soar. The groups also asked that the plans be exempted from provisions in the law that could require them to change their design and reach.
The National Federation of the Blind Thursday gave Blackboard, the e-learning giant, its top accessibility certification. Blackboard is the first learning-management company to earn the certification, although federation spokesman Chris Danielsen says the group had not tested all of Blackboard's competitors. Given that learning-management systems are so critical to modern education, it started working with Blackboard; the company was able to make a number of accessibility improvements in its latest version, released in the spring. Since Blackboard is by far the biggest player in the learning-management market, the federation's stamp of approval represents a big step for the visually impaired in an age when such online tools have become crucial even to brick-and-mortar institutions, Danielsen says.
The University of North Carolina System will allow all students to opt out of abortion coverage in their health insurance plan, The News & Observer reported. The move follows criticism from anti-abortion groups that students were being forced to have abortion coverage and to pay for others' abortions. University officials said that because of the way the plan's budget is set up, the premiums don't actually pay for specific procedures, and that declining abortion coverage will not affect fees. But students will now be given the choice to reject coverage for their own plans.
Purdue University has rejected the idea of outsourcing the work currently done by 700 custodians, the Associated Press reported. The university had been considering the move to save money, and some on the campus protested the idea. University officials said that a review determined that the quality of work couldn't be matched by a private company and that the university also benefits in intangible ways from the connections between the workers and the institution.
Research presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association by the counseling services director at Hofstra University provides additional evidence that rates of depression are rising among college students, Web MD reported. The research compared student records of those who sought counseling at a private university and found that between 1997 and 2009, the share of those diagnosed with moderate to severe depression increased to 41 percent, from 34 percent. In addition, the percentage of students seeking counseling who are using medications for depression, anxiety and ADHD increased to 24 percent, from 11 percent.
Members of the nation's largest union of postdoctoral scientists overwhelmingly ratified its first-ever contract Wednesday with the University of California, which was tentatively agreed to last month. The contract between the Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/United Auto Workers union and the university will tie the researchers' annual compensation to the federal government's pay scale for postdocs at the National Institutes of Health and promise annual increases of between 1.5 percent and 3 percent, depending on the size of their stipends, between 2010 and 2015. The contract could also require postdocs to make some contributions to their health premiums in 2012 and beyond. The union, which represents an estimated 10 percent of the postdoctoral researchers in the United States, struggled to win recognition but ultimately did so in 2008.
David Pollick quit as president of Birmingham-Southern College Wednesday as the institution's board released more information about the causes of a large and unexpected deficit that has led to layoffs and other budget cuts. In his statement, Pollick said that "the essential healing and creative process will proceed more rapidly if I step aside as president at this time." The college first announced major difficulties in June, citing a pattern of incorrect calculations of financial aid that resulted in larger awards to many students than were possible under the college's budget. A board statement issued Thursday, however, said that was only part of the problem. Beyond that, borrowing was increased -- without board knowledge -- to pay for some of the financial aid overpayments. All of this happened, the board noted, at a time that the college was already financially challenged to keep up with a facilities plan amid the economic downturn. "The trustees of Birmingham-Southern College accept fully the governance responsibility of the college and regret the fiscal distress that has necessitated unexpected and sudden operational reductions," the statement said.
Some scientists are calling on Harvard University to release details on a lengthy misconduct probe that has led to the retraction of a major paper by Marc Hauser, a prominent psychologist at the university, The Boston Globe reported. While scientists praise the university for conducting what appears to have been a thorough inquiry, they say that science depends on having full information about which parts of published research can be trusted. Harvard says that reviews of faculty conduct are confidential, that relevant findings are shared only with external funding agencies and that corrections are made in journals. But some say that's not enough. “In science, even the hint of a pattern of unreliable data is very disturbing. Science operates on the assumption everything is sound; everyone is playing according to the rules,’’ David Premack, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Globe. “Before making a judgment, one has to have all the facts. The institution has to be entirely forthcoming. Any withholding of information, or even suggestion of it adds to the suspicion. It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. Just tell the story.’’