Essay on the need to consider which institutions should bear the brunt of state cuts in public higher ed

State spending on public higher education has been in a free fall since the Great Recession. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2013-14, average state support for higher education was 23 percent less than it was prior to the recession. For many colleges and universities, reductions in state spending have left sizable budgetary holes that cannot be filled exclusively with spending cuts.

The result, in most cases, has been steady increases in tuition and fees charged to students. In effect, as public investment in higher education has declined, the cost burden associated with public higher education has increasingly shifted to students and their families.

Public concern, if not outcry, over this situation has resounded nationwide, and presidential candidates from both political parties have taken stands that higher education has become unaffordable for many students and families. Their response has been to propose policies that would lower the price of college as well as build a stronger federal-state partnership to ensure that states make appropriate investments in higher education.

However, missing from this conversation is the question of how investments -- and cuts -- are distributed among institutions of higher education. While state support flows to all public colleges and universities, some institutions depend on it far more than others. Research universities can look to endowment funds, gifts, auxiliary enterprises and federal funds for revenue when state funds decline, and their students are often more able to bear increases in tuition. But at community colleges and comprehensive public universities, state appropriations are the dominant source of funding, and when they decline, tuition must go up.

It is therefore important that policy makers move beyond the question of total dollars for higher education and consider where those dollars are spent. This issue -- which institutions get what funds -- is a common topic in K-12 education finance, but is often neglected in higher education.

In July, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab (of which we are the director and an affiliate, respectively) convened a national meeting of experts to explore how state higher education funding is allocated. Given Governor Scott Walker’s recent budget and its corresponding cuts to the University of Wisconsin system, we spent time considering the per-student funding that the state of Wisconsin provides to its public colleges and universities. We noted that state spending differs significantly among institutions. For example, in 2012-13, the state provided the University of Wisconsin-Madison with approximately $12,410 per full-time-equivalent student (FTE), whereas it provided $5,157 per FTE to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and just $3,211 per FTE to the two-year University of Wisconsin Colleges.

Differentiated state spending among higher education institutions is not new. On the one hand, legislators and college leaders argue these differences are appropriate and justified due to variations in the quantity and quality of education and related services offered students. And, frankly, that may be an important contributing factor.

On the other hand, the differences in the magnitude and distribution of Wisconsin’s expenditures among in-state higher education institutions raised red flags among the experts. First, while a case might be made that flagship institutions, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, require additional funding over and above the statewide average to maintain its core functions, the opposite case could be made for institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which serves a greater share of first-time college students and students from less-advantaged academic background that, arguably, may require more intensive academic supports and services to complete college.

This idea of “vertical equity” is woven into the fabric of K-12 education finance and well articulated in school funding court cases nationwide. That is, state funding for elementary and secondary education is frequently distributed in ways that provide compensatory, or extra funding, above the norm for schools that serve concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. The research literature that examines nonschool factors influencing academic success has repeatedly reaffirmed the important role that economic advantage plays.

In an era where spending cuts have been the norm, applying such a standard to higher education raises serious questions not only about the extent to which all colleges and universities receive adequate funding to support their mission but also who is most impacted by cuts in state appropriations.

This question of who may be most affected by higher education cuts introduces another concern -- whether those cuts are fairly distributed. Another important observation made by our group is that institutions already operating at the margin have less capacity to buffer students and families from reductions in state funding. Consider the community college, long relied on to be the most accessible and affordable point of entry to education after high school. To fulfill that mission and keep tuition low, such colleges depend on state and local support. But over time, that support has eroded sharply.

The consequence of the rapid defunding of community colleges is staggering. Across the nation, between 2000 and 2012 it led to a doubling in tuition and fees -- from $1,842 to $2,696 in inflation-adjusted figures. Sometimes financial aid can help offset that cost, but it often cannot at community colleges, where aid budgets are thin. Thus, since 2000, out-of-pocket costs facing students in the lowest income quartile attending community college grew by 61 percent and students began taking loans at much higher rates and accumulating more debt that they have difficulty repaying.

Again, community colleges are less equipped than public universities to attract out-of-state students or raise tuition to offset cuts, and their spending on instruction and student services may be too little to begin with. The two-year University of Wisconsin Colleges serve more first-generation students, more part-time students and more adult undergraduates than any other institutions in the UW system. Does just $3,000 to $6,000 a year (the national average is $5,700) in state support adequately ensure that academically vulnerable, economically insecure students, working parents and nontraditional learners will receive a quality postsecondary education that will prepare them for the workforce and beyond? It seems highly unlikely.

Improving the sufficiency and fairness of state allocations for higher education will require shedding more light on within-state funding distributions. It also will also demand a more careful accounting of the real costs -- not just how much is spent -- associated with educating different groups of students at the postsecondary level. Such data are currently nearly impossible to come by, but they must be collected.

Are UW-Madison students truly more expensive to educate, and if so, why? Are there reasons that could help explain why students at UW Colleges receive the lower level of investment? It is long past time for these questions and others like them to be asked and answered. Absent an unexpected influx of new funds, the future of college affordability will depend on how state monies are spent. We need to start paying attention.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Tammy Kolbe is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Vermont and an affiliate of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

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A public institution in Georgia is changing its name just three years after an initial, controversial switch that angered alumni, faculty and students.

Essay praises new Obama administration College Scorecard

While the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard website may be a scaled-back version of what President Obama first announced on the State University of New York’s own Buffalo campus in 2013, it will be a useful tool for providing the information students and their families need to make decisions about college costs and return on investment.

We agree with President Obama: it’s not a moment too soon for colleges and universities across the nation to be held to a standard of transparency and accountability. The bottom line is that if we really want to take a bite out of student debt, we have to help students understand the true cost of college and what it is they’re paying for. The College Scorecard, which provides new measures of student outcomes at specific colleges and universities -- including graduation rates, median salaries and loan repayment rates -- is an important step in the right direction. Increasing college completion ought to be the next.

While SUNY is proud to offer fair and predictable tuition that is the most affordable of public colleges in the Northeast, we know that controlling tuition alone will not solve the debt crisis. There must also be a strong commitment to ensuring that students finish their degrees as quickly as possible, without taking unnecessary courses and thus ringing up additional cost.

SUNY has committed to increasing the number of degrees awarded annually from 93,000 to 150,000 by 2020. We’re going to ensure that more students complete on time at lower cost. And in doing so, we will expand access to what we know is one of the most valuable commodities in today’s society: a high-quality college degree and an educational experience that has prepared each graduate for workforce success.

SUNY is already a leader when it comes to student completion and achievement, in part because we have created and expanded programs that help students get their degree. Our four-, five- and six-year graduation rates for baccalaureate students surpass those of our national public peers, and the same is true of our two- and three-year graduation rates at the associate level. We launched our own financial literacy tool, SUNY Smart Track, which ensures that students and families understand their borrowing options and responsibilities; we adopted the nation's most comprehensive seamless transfer policy; and we are significantly expanding online course offerings through Open SUNY.

However, we know that until every student completes, we have more work to do.

We recognize the need to continuously improve and welcome effective ways to do so. I am pleased to see that the metrics included in the Scorecard mirror those used to ensure quality through SUNY’s own performance management system, SUNY Excels. In fact, the 64 campuses of SUNY are currently at work fine-tuning performance plans for how they will answer a systemwide call for improved retention and graduation rates, greater financial literacy among students, expanded applied learning and research opportunities, and more. The College Scorecard could help us measure our progress on some of those goals, both within SUNY and in comparison to others nationally. It will allow us to identify the programs and interventions that really move the dial on student completion so we can take them to scale across our university system.

I am especially encouraged by the administration’s commitment to adding Student Achievement Measure (SAM) data, which accounts for the outcomes of transfer students, to the Scorecard. A large number of students move in and out of institutions or transfer without a degree, which means that many colleges and universities have a majority of students that the federal system would otherwise not count. Throughout this process, I have stressed the importance of SAM, joining my colleagues in the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities just recently in a final push to use this data because it is so vital in providing students and their families with the complete picture on degree attainment. At SUNY alone, nearly 30,000 students transfer annually among our institutions, and last year, 35 percent of all our undergraduate degrees were awarded to transfer students.

In pivoting from the original proposal to rate colleges and universities -- many of which have significantly different missions and serve vastly different student bodies -- and ultimately adding in SAM data, the Scorecard will also account for the diversity of institutions and the students they serve. As a public institution with a founding commitment to access for New Yorkers, we see transparency and accountability as fundamental to helping parents and students understand opportunities and challenges as they navigate an increasingly complex cradle-to-career pipeline.

I applaud President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for recognizing, as SUNY has, that data must be a driving factor as higher education works toward continued improvement. I look forward to working with my colleagues in higher education and with our federal partners in a continuing effort to bring to light the most comprehensive and accurate data available to help students make informed choices.

Nancy Zimpher is the chancellor of the State University of New York.

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Essay criticizes Obama administration's new scorecard on colleges

Here’s the good news about the new College Scorecard: no rankings. In dropping its proposed plan, the Obama administration showed recognition of the difficulty -- indeed, the impossibility -- of providing students and their families with measurements that could determine which colleges offer “best value” and “worst value.”

The administration had hoped to come up with an easy-to-understand website for measuring value that would help students and families understand the return on investment they could expect for the cost of a college education. That effort proved entirely unworkable to most people who studied the proposal closely. So we all owe the U.S. Department of Education thanks for scrapping that proposal.

This weekend, the Department of Education launched a new College Scoreboard website. After a preliminary review of the site and the roughly 80-page (with appendix) accompanying technical paper, “Using Federal Data to Measure and Improve the Performance of U.S. Institutions of Higher Education,” count me among the dissatisfied.

To begin with, measuring the value of an education in monetary terms fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of higher education. The highest learning is no more a commodity than one's life is a commodity. Students need an education that will help them earn a living, but they also wish for a fulfilling life, one that goes beyond any economic measure.

Students are looking for many different things from their time in college, and there is enormous diversity among colleges in what they offer a student. What is valuable to one student may be of little value to another. Needs and results will vary from student to student even within an institution, let alone across different institutions.

The Obama administration’s aim is to provide transparency about factors to consider in choosing a college. This is a laudable goal. Yet the new College Scorecard continues to place a premium on economic rather than noneconomic valuations. That is regrettable.

My initial impression is that the website is largely about price, cost, financial aid, success in securing a job, ability to pay off debt, courses of study offered and the size of the student body. There is also one indicator about whether the school is located in an urban, suburban or rural area.

But what about the rigor and breadth of instruction? Don’t students and parents want to know whether a student can expect to graduate with a firm grasp on how to think about the world, and how to communicate their thought in speech and writing -- all skills that will help them much more in life than any specialized career training? And what about meaningful faculty-student interaction? Surely students would like to know whether they will be likely to end up in small discussion classes or large, anonymous lecture classes. And what about the richness of student life, religious affiliation, cultural resources in the surrounding community, demographic diversity and other factors that may indicate the quality of life that a student can expect during his or her studies? It does not seem that the College Scorecard provides any guidance about such matters, which can be crucial in deciding which college to attend.

There are also serious questions about the sources and relevance of the data, which seems to be several years out of date. Will families reviewing Scorecard information realize that many colleges and universities -- including my own -- have added large amounts of funding for financial aid during the past few years? Or will they simply reject some institutions based on inaccurate data? The U-CAN website (University and College Accountability Network) designed by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, after extensive testing with families about the kinds of information that would be useful, has much more current and comprehensive data on this topic.

The new College Scorecard website also tries to provide information about the average salaries that graduates of each college earn six years after enrolling. It is difficult to know where this information comes from. Does it take into account how many students continue on to graduate school? If not, the averages will seem to be lower than they really should be.

The Scorecard apparently tries to compensate for graduate students in its salary data by not counting former students who are in deferment on student loans. But for many reasons, not all of a college’s former graduates borrow money, and consequently do not defer loans while in graduate school. These graduate students will turn up as having no income or minimal income -- even if being in graduate school is their intended goal, and their undergraduate institution prepared them well for graduate study.

And in any case, earnings are more related to the choice of occupation than to the choice of college. And what about controlling salary data for location? If large numbers of a college’s graduates settle in relatively low-cost areas of the country, the average salaries for their students will be lower than at other colleges.

Also, this emphasis on earning is at odds with President Obama’s emphasis on the need for more teachers, social workers, geriatric care workers and child care workers. None of these professions is what one would call highly compensated.

And why does the site use the six-year graduation rate as a measure of success? Why not use the four-year graduation rate? Surely families don’t really want to know how many students take six years to go through a four-year program.

But one of the most disturbing aspects of this scorecard is its reliance on income data retrieved from the IRS and matched with student loan information possessed by the Department of Education. One had the notion that the IRS data would be protected from use by any other federal agency. And how is the employment data ever to be verified if the public does not have access to information that is likely to have the consequences that this scorecard may have?

On top of all this, as American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad has already pointed out, no external review was performed before the site went live. Now that college officials are getting a chance to look at it, many are seriously concerned about the reliability of the data.

The good news on that score is that there are already valuable tools in place. One of the best is the U-CAN website already mentioned. This resource provides comparable information about each participating college, with links to more detailed information if desired. I think that this resource would be far more helpful to students and their families than the new Scorecard.

The Obama administration has more support than it might realize from the very colleges and universities it is trying to evaluate. We too wish to be as transparent as possible about what is going on at our schools, about what it costs to attend and about what our alumni do with their lives after graduation. Together we want to help prospective students make responsible choices that suit their circumstances and their dreams for the future.

The new College Scorecard, however, seems to have a great potential to mislead, misinform and discourage students and their families. Talk about defeating the purpose.

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis, Md.

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Class at St. John's College

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An American community college closer to Australia than the United States is wracked by typhoon.

Advocates of free two-year college agree debt-free movement is a help

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