Several states have explored the possibility of so-called “free community college” programs, which would cover the cost of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates who meet certain other eligibility criteria. Tennessee was the first state to pass such a plan, making first-time, full-time students who file the FAFSA and complete eight hours of community service each semester eligible for two years of tuition and fee waivers. Legislators in Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas have proposed similar plans, although none of those have been adopted at this time.
The most recent plan for free community college comes from the city of Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would cover up to three years of tuition and fees for eligible graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. In order to be eligible, students must have a 3.0 high school grade-point average, not require remediation in math or English, and file the FAFSA. (It appears that part-time students will be eligible for the program, unlike in the state proposals.) The district estimates that about 3,000 students would qualify for the program out of the roughly 20,000 students who graduate each year.
Looking more broadly, these “free college” programs will give very little additional money to students with the greatest financial need. In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.
Tuition and Fees Not Covered by Grant Aid at Community Colleges, by Income
Source: 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study
Note: Sample includes dependent students attending community colleges.
Costs Are More Than Tuition and Fees
At community colleges, tuition and fees are a small portion of the total cost of attendance. Students also have to pay for books and other supplies, a place to live, and everyday expenses necessary to live while also being a student. While some argue that living costs shouldn’t be subsidized by financial aid because they are also necessary to live, being able to cover these costs is critical to being successful in college. The “free college” programs do not cover any of the other expenses, meaning that students must turn to loans or self-support in order to finance their education.
Only 2 percent of community college students receiving Pell Grants in the NPSAS have their full cost of attendance met by grant aid. Four in 10 Pell recipients have to cover less than $5,000 in costs, while an additional 37 percent have to cover between $5,000 and $10,000. The median student with a zero expected family contribution has to come up with just over $5,000 to cover estimated living costs — something that the Chicago program and other similar programs do nothing to alleviate.
Defining “College Ready”
Unlike some other last-dollar scholarship programs, Chicago’s program has a substantial merit component. The requirements of a 3.0 high school grade point average and testing into college-level math and English leave out the vast majority of community college students. Ninety-four percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates required remediation in math in 2009, suggesting that very few students are able to qualify for the city’s program. About 40 percent of community college students in the NPSAS had taken at least one remedial course, with slightly higher rates for Pell recipients. This means that other states or cities considering merit components are likely to reduce the potential pool of recipients — and reduce their costs.
Making grant receipt contingent on placement test scores could potentially have negative effects on students who end up in remediation. Research by Jennie Brand, Fabian Pfeffer, and Sara Goldrick-Rab using Chicago Public Schools data has found that attending community colleges results in a higher bachelor’s-degree completion rate for disadvantaged students, many of whom are unlikely to enroll in college without the option of a community college. Students who expect to get a scholarship under the Chicago program but are then deemed ineligible due to their test score may be more likely to drop out of college due to the disappointment of not getting the award. It is important to note this effect could even exist for students who would get no additional money under the Chicago program — as long as the perception is that the program is giving them money that is actually being provided by the Pell Grant.
How to Improve “Free College” Programs
“Free college” programs do have some positive attributes, in spite of the limitations noted above. Some students from middle-income families will get additional financial aid as a result of the program. But the concept of “free college” could even benefit Pell recipients who are unlikely to see any additional financial aid under the program. Research has shown that making students aware of their financial aid eligibility results in increased college attendance rates, and similar effects could result due to the programs' publicity. For those reasons, it is important that the Chicago and Tennessee programs be rigorously evaluated to see who benefits, and for what groups of students the program passes a cost-effectiveness test.
These programs should also provide some additional financial aid to students whose Pell Grants cover tuition and fees in order to cover living costs. Even a $500 award at the beginning of the semester would help low-income students manage upfront costs like books and rent payments, and could be paid for by slightly reducing awards for students who are not Pell-eligible. The program would still give larger benefits to financially squeezed middle-income families, but students with the greatest financial need would also see some additional money.
It is also important to consider extending the programs to returning adult students, who typically do not qualify for these programs. The median age of community college students is approximately 23, and a program that provides assistance to these students (most of whom have exceptional financial need) could prove to be very beneficial. Finally, it is important to publicize these programs (and their conditions) widely so students and their families know that community college can be an affordable, high-quality educational option.
Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) is an assistant professor in the department of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University and blogs at Kelchen on Education. All opinions are his own.
Bullying and intimidation on anonymous social media platforms have been a pervasive problem on college campuses for some time. Each academic school year seems to bring a new app or website to prominence as the mechanism of choice for posting hostile messages.
Discussion of Online Bullying
Kenyon's Sean Decatur and Inside Higher Ed blogger Eric Stoller will discuss how colleges should respond to Yik Yak on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free weekly news podcast, on Friday. To be notified of new editions of "This Week," sign up here.
This year, Yik Yak is the app du jour; racist, sexist, and homophobic comments posted on Yik Yak have led to student protests on some campuses, and attempts by administrators to block access to the site on others. But Yik Yak is not the problem; in fact, I am confident that the hype over this particular app will soon die down, and it will be replaced by some new, more exciting tool. The problem lies in a culture that accepts – indeed embraces – the act of broadcasting, behind a protective mask of anonymity, statements that most would find offensive.
Kenyon College, where I serve as president, has not been immune to this. Anonymous postings to social media have spurred vigorous debate on campus in prior years. This year, however, the posting of statements that attempted to find humor in sexual assault as the campus prepared for Take Back the Night Week provoked a particularly strong response. Part of the conversation on campus has focused on the specific content: the fact that rape and sexual violence are never laughing matters and the reality that these types of anonymous postings have a threatening and chilling impact on the campus community.
More broadly, this discussion has stirred renewed dialogue on the very nature of anonymous postings and disrespectful, uncivil dialogue on campus. Academic institutions must create spaces for dialogue and conflicting views – this is the very heart of the concept of academic freedom. At Kenyon we value (and indeed celebrate) both the right to express dissenting views and the responsibility to respectfully listen to those opinions. We may disagree and challenge with rigor, but always with respect.
But our embrace of academic freedom as a principle means that we must reject bullying and intimidation that squelch debate and dissent and inhibit learning. Personal attacks and provocative statements made behind the shield of anonymity are not protected by academic freedom; rather, these actions restrict and stifle it. Difference, dissent, and debate must occur in an open, respectful environment, and the type of targeting and bullying of individuals or groups that occurs in anonymous social media harms this environment.
In an effort to promote an open, respectful environment that enables difference, dissent, and debate, a group of students have started a project on Facebook (#Respectful Difference). The project uses social media to positively assert the values of civility and respect and the importance of dialogue to bridge different views. The concept is simple: Members of the Kenyon community (as individuals or groups) are photographed with simple statements about why they value respectful difference, post them to social media, and challenge peers and friends to do the same. By reclaiming social media as a space for civil discussion, and by rejecting anonymity, this project has been a way for Kenyon students, faculty, staff, and alumni to assert the central values of academic freedom.
Will this simple project change the culture that fuels anonymous online bullying? We’d be naïve to believe that this is sufficient to solve the problem. Hateful speech arises from systemic inequality, which must be addressed in order to achieve cultural change. The campaign has drawn some fair criticism on campus that a call for open dialogue is not enough, that root causes must be challenged as well. But this student-inspired campaign starts the process for an open dialogue that is a prerequisite for change and it sends a powerful message about the values of our community.
To linger for too long on the vastness and complexity of the University of California is to risk a form of intellectual paralysis. With its 10 distinct campuses, each a major university in its own right, five medical centers, three national laboratories, and an agricultural and natural resources division with representatives in every corner of California; with its $24 billion budget, its more than 230,000 students, and its 190,000 employees — nuclear scientists, literature professors, doctors and nurses, staff members of all types (some union, some not), you name it — the University of California is one of the largest, most complicated organizations in the world.
One year ago, on September 30, 2013, I began my freshman year serving as the 20th president of the University of California. I’m not sure how much I have changed the university, but I would like to tell you how the university has changed me.
For starters, I no longer wear red. Once was enough for the Old Blues of Berkeley, as Cal alumni are called, and for the Bruins of Los Angeles, not to mention the Banana Slugs of Santa Cruz or the Anteaters of Irvine. Message received. Blue and gold will define my sartorial palette ever more.
I no longer chuckle over the fact that somewhere within our institution a committee on committees is plugging away, guided no doubt in part by our policy on policies. Some university traditions can seem archaic and almost comic to an outsider, especially one without a background in academia. But something I learned early on is that all traditions have their reasons, and it’s best to understand where and why they are rooted before presuming to challenge their purpose. Message received … but I’m still going to stand firm on the subcommittee on subcommittees.
To say one has been humbled is too often shorthand for having been caught. But I can truly say my most common experience has been being humbled at every turn.
I have been humbled by students.
My very first night on a campus as president of the University of California was at UC Merced — and I do mean “night.” Merced is our newest campus and does not yet have a lot of classroom space, so classes start early and run late, six days a week. This biology class started after 9 p.m. There were two dozen undergraduates, most of whom I was told were first-generation college students, peering into their microscopes, hours after the sun went down. Talk about a passion for learning.
This passion is infectious. These students don’t come to UC to mess around. They come to learn, and along the way, to be transformed. Thousands upon thousands of UC alumni were first-generation immigrants and the first in their families to attend college. Today, that tradition continues, as reflected in the unparalleled number of students we enroll who are low-income, hail from underrepresented minority groups, or are first-generation college students. But all, it must be said, are academically qualified. They earn their way in.
I also have been humbled by professors, the research they do, and their dedication to students.
In the first few months of my time here in California, I made an effort to visit every campus and as many related UC outposts as possible. Along the way, I learned some of the key distinctions that exist on the academic side of public research universities. One is the distinction between basic research and applied research. The latter often makes for a better, neater story, but without chaotic, messy basic research, there would no life-saving or money-making applications. Another distinction is that, as one professor told me, there is no toggle switch delineating research from teaching. It is not an either/or proposition. The blend of teaching and research is its own phenomenon. It’s the magic mix that leads both to creating new knowledge and to educating students, not just instructing them. And finally, I learned that beyond research, and beyond teaching, faculty members have a seat at the table of leadership. Shared governance is one of UC’s key values.
In this first year, I’ve learned that the president of the University of California needs a porous skin as much as, if not more than, a thick one. Much of what I learned was through osmosis, while sitting in on classes, participating in discussions, and attending all types of public performances. I sat in on a poetry class run by the California poet laureate at UC Riverside. I listened to presentations by researchers who are mapping the activity of the human brain at UC San Diego. I came face-to-face with a dolphin at the Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz, and at UCLA, I dropped in — unannounced — at a student services center to hear the answers students get when they ask questions about, say, applying for financial aid. And yes, I took many a meeting. And then I took more meetings.
As I traveled throughout California, one thing I absorbed was just how much the mission of UC extends beyond the borders of our campuses, and out into the world. I knew that the reach of the university was long, but I did not understand that it was also deep — farm advisers in every county, counselors in hundreds of high schools, research exported around the globe.
Having said all that, my tenure as UC president so far has not been a ceaseless parade of epiphanies. I have led both a state (as governor of Arizona) and a large federal agency (as secretary of homeland security). I know well what you have to do to hit the ground running when you commence leadership of an institution. Dive into the budget. Listen and learn. Launch initiatives to galvanize efforts. Build your base of institutional knowledge.
On my first day at the university, I stated three things. First, I said that I faced a steep learning curve, and that my first job was to climb it. Consider it a project launched.
Second, I said that the University of California is a high-stakes proposition — not only for the state it serves, but also for the nation as a whole. To stand still is to fall behind. We are pushing forward on many, many fronts.
And third, I made a promise. I promised that I would get up every day and serve as the best advocate I could be for UC. I have held true to this statement, and what I know now is just how important this advocacy is. The fundamental responsibility of the president of the University of California is to make the connection between the institution and the people it serves — not just students, not just professors or staff members, but all of society.
I knew these things were true when I said them. I just didn’t know how true.
I can’t wait for my sophomore year to begin.
Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California.
Less than a year after Alamo Colleges professors objected to their chancellor's plan to require a course in part on the '7 Habits,' they cite new concerns about shared governance, including a move to abolish program-based associate degrees.
In unprecedented ways, those in higher education leadership positions are now genuinely worried about both the viability of many good colleges and universities and the possibility that many of those that survive will be damaged.
The litany of problems is well-known to readers of Inside Higher Ed: declining enrollment; untenable tuition discounts; too much debt; the growing skepticism on the part of prospective students, their families and elected officials about whether the value of a college education is worth the cost; staggering amounts of deferred maintenance and decreased state support for public campuses.
In this climate, it is not surprising many college and university presidents and boards now think that merging with another institution may be their best road to fiscal sustainability if not to survival. No one I know who is contemplating such a step does so lightly. They are fully aware of the potential negative consequences for their faculty, staff, students, alumni and even local residents. There are some happy exceptions: institutions that are strong as they are but believe that a merger will bring them benefits without their sacrificing their current mission, faculty and staff.
My role as president of the University of Puget Sound in our 1993 decision to transfer our law school to Seattle University has led a number of presidents and trustees to speak to me about possible mergers. This was an important mission decision for us, which we made even though the law school was bringing us $750,000 a year in overhead. Moreover, unlike many prospective mergers today, this was one of those decisions that did indeed benefit both institutions, and one in which no one lost a job or compensation. Specifically, Seattle University agreed to honor all rank and tenure for faculty, to retain all staff and to offer comparable compensation. The law school also remained in its location in Tacoma for five years until Seattle University built a new facility, which was far more desirable than the Puget Sound location. Even so, the decision was highly contentious at the time, leading to at least one lawsuit, angry editorials and cartoons in the local newspaper, some distressed alumni and a few outraged elected officials. Today, most parties celebrate the decision.
Most of those contemplating merger today are not as fortunate in that they are generally prompted by serious concerns about whether their institution can continue to exist as it is currently constituted.
The three examples that follow are grounded in actual situations but in the interest of confidentiality, I have altered aspects of their identities. None of the institutions I discuss have retained me to help them with a possible merger.
A trustee of a small Northeastern college with a local student body confided that he and a few other trustees are in very preliminary, confidential discussions about a possible merger with an institution with a similar mission, located a mere 10 miles away. The two colleges, which have a number of cross-applicants, have not met their budgeted enrollment numbers in the past six years. Both have been spending down their endowments in order to fund ongoing operations. Both estimate that if they continue on their current paths, they will be forced to close their doors within five years, perhaps sooner. They believe that by merging and sharing back offices, they will create important economies of scale. By offering courses and majors on only one campus, they expect to reduce the size of their faculty. Although they are not actively contemplating closing one of the campuses, fearing alumni and community protests and potential legal liability, some board members want this on the table.
The president of a once-selective private faith-based college in the Midwest -- facing declining enrollments and escalating tuition discounts -- shared his fantasy: the flagship Research I university located in the same city, now turning down many qualified in-state applicants, would acquire his campus to enable the university to accept a greater numbers of applicants. His fantasy further specified that although his college would become nonsectarian, in all other ways it would be true to its current mission with the same faculty and staff offering the same curriculum. His fears: the university might not want to assume either the significant amount of deferred maintenance on his campus or its abundance of debt. He also worried that because most of his faculty colleagues did not meet the university’s more rigorous research expectations, they might not be retained. His immediate question: How might he begin to foster such conversations with the university without risking public knowledge, which he believed would inevitably damage his institution?
Finally, the president of a small private liberal arts college west of the Mississippi, which also had long enjoyed stable enrollments, indicated that her institution was “barely holding its own” in terms of enrollments and that to achieve the desired number of students it had increased the financial aid discount to 55 percent, leading to the institution’s first operating deficit. She and the president of a polytechnic university located two hours away had engaged in some preliminary conversations, conjecturing that a merger would enable them to become a comprehensive university rather than separate institutions offering a limited range of programs. Both recognized that for a merger to make sense, they would need to consolidate their programs on one campus. Understandably, both wanted their own campus to survive. Given that they could not resolve this issue, each was extremely nervous about what it would mean if these casual conversations became public. Neither had yet approached their boards.
Some institutions in the last year have gone beyond conversation and actually merged. Most notably, two colleges of fine arts have entered into merger agreements with larger universities.
In February, George Washington University and the Corcoran College of Art + Design announced that GW would assume ownership of the Corcoran building and operate the art college, which had been struggling financially. The National Gallery of Art would acquire much of the Corcoran’s collection. A few trustees from each institution confidentially negotiated this agreement, which resolved issues ranging from the ownership of the art collection and of the facilities to the role of the college faculty within the framework of GW. In response to a lawsuit, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge on August 18 approved the merger.
In April, the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and the University of New Haven (UNH) announced that Lyme would become the sixth UNH College and its first bachelor of fine arts program. An article in The Day explained that the academy will, in the words of UNH’s president Steven H. Kaplan, be “semi-autonomous” and maintain its current mission. Lyme students will have access to UNH’s liberal arts programs, its campus in Florence, Italy, its career counseling office and its library. UNH will oversee Lyme’s finances, and the UNH admissions staff will now recruit for Lyme. UNH will also in the early years subsidize Lyme until its enrollments grow to an anticipated level that would allow Lyme to become financially self-sufficient.
In the last several years, we have also seen the emergence of TCS Education System, a nonprofit organization of five previously independent college or universities that have affiliated. Although each institution has its own board, presidents and accreditation, all the campuses are ultimately governed by a system board and a system president. Founded as a not-for-profit education system in 2009, an inspiration of Michael Horowitz, then president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, the system today includes the following:
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, which offers more than 20 degree programs and many international opportunities in psychology and related behavioral and health sciences for more than 4,000 students in Chicago, Washington,D.C. and California.
The Santa Barbara and the Ventura Colleges of Law.
Saybrook University in San Francisco, which focuses on humanistic studies offering advanced degrees in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, and human science.
The Dallas Institute of Nursing, which offers an associate degree and vocational nursing programs.
Pacific Oaks College, which offers bachelor's-completion, master's, and certificate programs in human development, counseling, education, early childhood education, and teacher credentialing on its main campus in Pasadena and satellite locations,.
What differentiates TCS from most nonprofit education systems is that it provides both a broad overarching mission that is consistent with each college’s mission and also shared services for all institutions. Approximately 150 staff members are located in TCS-space in Chicago and Irvine, California, providing support for international services, legal affairs, admissions operations, financial aid, technology, finance, marketing and human resources and institutional research. This model allows the TCS schools to offer a level and quality of support that no one institution would be able to afford.
The TCS model has several other distinctive characteristics. Most campuses are located in urban areas that provide plentiful services to students so that TCS does not need to invest in amenities. Its focus is mainly on the adult student who, on average, is a 35-year-old woman who is seeking a professional degree or is interested in completing the bachelor’s degree. Most of the TCS programs are professional graduate degrees or degree-completion programs
Not all merger attempts have been successful. For example, in recent months, four well-publicized potential mergers of educational institutions have failed.
In February, the board of Point University in Georgia, a nonsectarian institution that was previously affiliated with the Church of Christ, decided not to pursue an already-announced merger with Montreat College in North Carolina, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Montreat’s alumni, students and faculty had vehemently objected to the plan. The Point board was further discouraged by certain legal concerns having to do with the use of the Montreat campus and the composition of the board of a merged institution.
In April, a planned merger between Virginia Intermont College (VIC) and Florida’s Webber International University came unraveled, leading VIC within a month to announce that it was closing.
In early July, Scripps Research Institute announced that it was withdrawing from talks with the University of Southern California about the possibility of USC absorbing Scripps. The announced reason for the breakdown was the opposition of 10 department chairs and the dean, apparently acting with the support of the 262 Scripps faculty members who, according to Chemical & Engineering News, voted nearly unanimously to reject the leadership of Scripps president Michael Marletta.
In August the New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA) board, in response to student protests, agreed to reconsider its decision to merge with Southern New Hampshire University. The New Hampshire Union Leader quoted NHIA Interim President Richard Strawbridge as saying "The decision was made to slow down a little bit" but that to survive NHIA needed to increase its enrollment from its current 500 to 650 students.
Because conversations about merger often require confidentiality and because the issues involved in a merger will vary from situation to situation, it is impossible to know how many other colleges and universities have explored and then rejected merger or what the issues were. I believe, nevertheless, that the cases discussed above offer some lessons to be learned and some questions to be asked:
Colleges and universities need to address their financial challenges, often manifest in ongoing structural deficits and unsustainably high endowment payouts, at the earliest possible moment rather than to take action only when they have little recourse other than closure or merger.
If there is a merger between two institutions, do both campuses remain open or does one close in order to reduce operating and capital expenses? And if one is to close, how do the negotiating boards make the decision about which one? What weight should they give to such factors as the comparative amount of deferred maintenance, which campus has the more desirable location in terms of admissions and whether one campus has a greater likelihood of being sold to another entity in order to have additional funds to support the new merged institution?
If two campuses with low enrollments merge and one campus is closed, what reason is there to believe that students who were interested in the now-defunct campus would enroll at the new merged institution, in a different location?
If a campus is to close, what is its board’s responsibility in terms of maintaining its legacy (as Harvard University did by creating the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study when Radcliffe merged into Harvard)?
If a campus closes, what happens to its endowment, particularly restricted gifts?
If a campus closes, how will the students from that campus be accommodated?
Assuming that the merger is intended to create economies of scale, who decides and on what basis which faculty and staff members will be retained and who will be let go? Who decides and on what basis which programs will continue and which will be closed?
What will happen to the boards of the merging institutions? Will they merge into a combined board or will a new board entirely be constituted?
What degree will graduates be given going forward? Will alumni be given the opportunity to change their degree-granting institution to the new entity?
What name should a merged entity carry?
In addition to contemplating such questions and others, those involved in possible merger discussions would be advised to engage the best legal advice that they can from the earliest stages of conversation. They would also be advised to engage a public relations firm to help them craft their communications to both internal and external constituencies. This would pertain to decisions ranging from those in which the institutions have an obligation to garner public opinions to those which that in all likelihood will be controversial and unpopular. Throughout the process, their chief financial officers should in an ongoing way determine the costs and benefits of each possible scenario, not only in financial terms but also in terms of what it will mean to the faculty, staff and students involved.
But most of all, although most merger discussions will be prompted by dire financial circumstances -- with the happy exceptions I note above -- all those involved in such discussions need always to recognize the genuine emotional impact on the faculty, staff, students, alumni and the local community of such a decision. They especially need to be mindful of the consequences for those faculty and staff who lose their jobs and a local community that might lose a cherished institution. Such recognition will not compensate for the genuine loss people will experience if an institution to which they have been committed in some way is either abolished or significantly altered, but we can hope that this recognition will lead those making the decision to do so as carefully and humanely as possible.
Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and [resident of SRP CONSULTING. She is the author of Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Senior Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Institutions Thrive (Jossey-Bass, 2014) and On Being Presidential (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
Amid great anticipation, Apple last week rolled out its latest products. All the fanfare and breathless media coverage serves to underscore the excitement innovative technologies generate across our society. This is especially true for higher education. Few other industries integrate technology so thoroughly into their work.
That is why higher education leaders are so concerned about legislation that would take decision-making about the use of technology to support learning out of the hands of campuses and turn it over to an obscure federal agency.
The TEACH (Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education) Act comes from the best of intentions. Its sponsors hope to improve how campuses meet the needs of students with disabilities, and to help give guidance to institutions struggling to reconcile their responsibilities to those students with the relentless pace of technological innovation. These are goals campuses strongly support.
As is so often the case in Washington, though, the devil is in the details. Our organizations, along with 19 other higher education groups representing nearly every American college and university, have serious concerns about what the TEACH Act would mean for higher education’s ability to use technology to advance learning.
In short, the legislation would actually prevent us from using new technology to better serve our students, including students with disabilities.
We shared these concerns with the advocacy group that favors this legislation, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), over a year and a half ago. Some supporters of the bill have wrongly implied that our opposition stems from something other than a desire for the best policy outcome for all students, including those with disabilities. This is not true. Nor do such assertions help students, or advance good policy.
Let us be very clear: we believe the federal government can play a valuable role in improving accessibility without inhibiting the use of technology to improve learning for all students. But that is not what the TEACH Act would do.
Rather than simply providing helpful, voluntary guidelines, the TEACH Act would effectively require colleges to only use technologies that meet guidelines created by a federal agency, or risk being sued.
This agency (the Access Board) has never directly addressed higher education technology issues before, and how it would tackle the incredible diversity of digital instructional materials and related technologies that campuses employ (everything from e-text books to dynamic weather simulators) is far from clear.
The key problem with this approach is that while technological innovations are being made every day, federal agencies do not move nearly that fast. The TEACH Act would require the federal guidelines to be updated every three years — a very long time in the technology world — and that’s the best-case scenario.
The reality is that the Access Board’s pace is far slower. The agency’s current technology guidelines for the federal government were last promulgated in 2000; it has been in the process of trying to “refresh” those guidelines for close to a decade.
What’s more, the TEACH Act would deny colleges and universities the flexibility provided in current law to meet students’ needs when full technological solutions are not yet available.
The bill would apply a new, extremely rigid standard for accessibility exclusively to colleges and universities that is distinct from the standard the nation as a whole, including the federal government, has long followed. Such an inflexible approach would limit, not enhance, our ability to serve persons with disabilities.
With this in mind, could the process proposed in the TEACH Act even work? Or, as is more likely, would colleges and universities find themselves restricted to using technology that is years (or decades) behind the times, with no flexibility to adapt and better serve their students, including those with disabilities?
The bottom line: the bill as currently drafted would unambiguously inhibit the development and adoption of new learning technologies that would directly benefit students.
Colleges and universities lead the way in designing and developing accessible technologies, filling a vital gap where the private sector — including many publishers of textbooks and learning materials — has been largely unresponsive.
It is hard to imagine the impact on learning if colleges and universities are forced to wait years for the federal government to catch up with technology.
We take our responsibilities to our students seriously, and part of that commitment is keeping pace with technology. Doing so can pose challenges for campuses trying to balance the possible benefits of emerging technologies with our responsibilities to our students.
But freezing the development and implementation of new learning technologies, as the TEACH Act would do, has serious consequences. Rather than helping students with disabilities, putting such a policy into law would ensure that all students are left behind as technology advances. We remain committed to finding an approach that will truly improve learning for everyone, and we hope others will join us.
Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of government and public affairs of the American Council on Education. Jarret S. Cummings is director of policy and external relations of EDUCAUSE.