Essay on the meaning of Constitution Day to higher education

Being a college president and student of history, my thoughts turn to the history of higher education in America whenever we are about to mark an occasion like Constitution Day, which occurs every year on September 17.

The American Revolution inspired a flurry of college-building in the 1780s and 1790s. My own college was formally chartered by the state of Maryland in 1784. This charter was a name-change for an already existing institution: King William's School, a free school founded under British colonial rule in 1696. St. John's College is thus the third-oldest institution of higher learning in the nation.

It is not surprising that the newly independent state of Maryland would want to change the title of an institution named after an English king, but King William's School had in fact already acquired a number of peculiarly American characteristics. It was supported by taxes and accessible to those of lesser means, and it sought to provide  students with a firm educational grounding on which to build their future lives: language skills through the study of Latin, Greek, and English, calculating and mechanical skills through the study of mathematics and science, and a grasp of history and culture through the study of the classic texts of the western tradition.

With the coming of the American Revolution, however, the nation’s colleges took on added responsibility: preparing the young for mature citizenship in the new republic. Even before the end of the Revolution, General Rufus Putnam — who went on to found Muskingum Academy, the predecessor of Ohio's Marietta College — told General George Washington that future schools would "raise and educate our children to serve and honor the nation for which their fathers fought." And Washington College in Maryland, the first in the nation to be chartered after the Revolution, was dedicated from the outset to the training of responsible citizens.

But it was Thomas Jefferson who probably set the tone for colleges formed in the last two decades of the 18th century with his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" of 1779, which inspired educators and legislators throughout the former colonies. Recognizing that even a democratically elected government was susceptible to harm from ambitious men, Jefferson set up education as the bulwark against anyone attaining absolute power:

It is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompted to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.

It followed that Americans must be educated in the foundations of the Republic and in the principles of political, religious, and economic freedom. They must develop the personal freedom to judge whether the government they elect is respecting the foundational principles. And most of all, Americans must have the freedom of thought to question the very foundations and principles — and change them if they are ever to be found wanting.

There is here an all-American paradox that today’s colleges ought to embrace: they should help students understand the foundations of free government that enable  us to pursue the happiness we choose for ourselves; but they should also help students learn to freely question those foundations in order to improve them if necessary, for the benefit of the people. Seen in the light of these principles, today’s colleges should be the defenders of our democratic republic, the guardians of its liberty, and the transmitters of the revolutionary spirit.

My own college is a good example. In an address to the class of 1796, St. John’s first president, John McDowell, told the graduates that the principle end of education is "to direct the powers of the mind in unfolding themselves, and to assist them in gaining throughout bent and force." But he added that a college had another responsibility: "As we live in a country, where the law ought to govern, and where every citizen is directly or indirectly a legislator, the principles of law and government ought to be well understood." And he closed by admonishing the graduates to continue building upon the foundation laid during their time at the college, an effort "which will render you eminently useful to your country and enable you on all occasions to promote its real interest and happiness."

The celebration of Constitution Day reminds us of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Those of us in higher education should mark this day with special appreciation, for education in the arts of freedom is our happy duty and our public trust.

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


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Oregon professors object to contract language divorcing academic freedom from free speech

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At U. of Oregon, some professors fear that administrators are using contract negotiations to undercut academic freedom rights.


Essay on how President Obama could reform student aid without ratings

Understand one fact about the president's speech in Buffalo August 22 and the White House's plans to reform college financial aid: President Obama's proposed tie of financial aid prospects to ratings relies on an overcomplicated, implausible set of mechanisms to accomplish a simple task. The admirable goal: target financial aid on the colleges and universities that make it easier for students of moderate means to attend and complete undergraduate programs.

We should not be surprised that the president's goal is mixed up with the fantasy of an algorithm that can judge the merit of colleges and universities. Ratings and rankings are the crack cocaine of today's generation of education reformers and have been since the Reagan administration concocted a "wall chart" attempting to compare state educational performance. Our current president, his White House advisers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and many others cannot get the idea out of their heads -- that if we just find the right (magical) formula, we can push the education system to perform better.

Sometimes algorithms are important and helpful, and I understand why dreams of a perfect educational judgment system are so appealing. Brookings Institution researchers Matthew Chingos and Beth Akers have the best short description of the potential benefits of a ratings system for higher education, written from the perspective of two algorithm advocates. Alas, they assume both the existence of meaningful, comprehensive, nonmanipulable data, and the ability of an algorithm to spot high and low performers with accuracy. We know from both college ranking systems and the history of elementary and secondary school accountability that such attempts generally fail. Cedar Reiner and Timothy Burke have explained some of the concerns I have about applying blind faith in bad formulas for higher education... and I am afraid that the president's promise, "We'll figure out the right formula in the next two years!" is as comforting as other similar claims have been. Such a system is inevitably a Rube Goldberg machine.

But we do not need to feed politicians' dependency on school and college ratings. Mr. President, tear down that wall chart! You can accomplish the same goal with much simpler, more robust tools -- and even better, you would not need Congress to amend the Higher Education Act to improve the federal government's financial aid system. Here is my Five-Step Program to break politicians' addiction to ratings systems, at least in higher education:

1. Distribute a large chunk of college aid directly to colleges and universities based on Pell graduates, if not exactly as proposed. The basic idea is good: institutions that effectively serve poor students should have some support to continue and expand their work. But we do not know whether it would be best to have a flat payment per graduate or weight it by financial aid received by the student. There are some potential advantages of weighting the reward by the size of Pell Grant received while enrolled, and possibly other financial aid: addressing transfer issues in a rational (if not perfect) way, giving some advantage to institutions with the poorest students, and giving institutions a significant incentive to help students keep Pell grants and other aid year-to-year. Instead of making one decision at the federal level, Congress could distribute funds to states, tell them they must distribute funds based on associate or bachelors degrees earned by those who received Pell grants, and let states partially or fully weight those rewards based on federal and/or state and institutional financial aid received by the graduates. Letting states determine if the rewards are weighted by financial aid may appeal to governors and state legislators, as well as allowing states to include state and institutional financial aid in the weights.

2. Cap student loans not just by students but also by institutions, with the cap tied to the number of recent graduates who carried federal student loans at the institution. For example, if the cap for four-year colleges was hypothetically set at $10,000 times the total loan-carrying graduates in the past three years, then an institution with a consistent 40 percent graduation rate would have a much lower loan cap for all its students than an institution with a consistent 60 percent graduation rate. (For example, a college that admits 1,000 students who take outloans every year would graduate 400 of them annually, 1,200 every three years, with a total loan cap of $12 million. If it graduated 600 students carrying loans instead every year, it would have a total loan cap of $18 million.) Institutions with lower graduation rates would either have to have lower net costs, raise their graduation rates, or stop recruiting students who need large student loans. 

Capping loans at an institution by the absolute number of loan-carrying students would not need a difficult-to-calculate graduation rate but would realistically address the capacity of an institution to educate students. The formula could be generous at the start and focus on limiting loans for the worst actors in higher education, those whose business plans rely on both the federal financial-aid system and also the gullibility of prospective students.

3. Cap not only personal student loans but also loan-forgiveness and so-called PLUS loans available to parents and graduate students, to circumvent individual loan caps. A comprehensive all-system cap that sets annual, per-degree, and lifetime loan and forgiveness caps would end the structure that has allowed Georgetown Law School to game graduate student PLUS loans so that neither Georgetown nor its students pay (in net) anything to the federal government. A comprehensive family-based cap on college-related loans would also address concerns about the exploitation of students and their families by tuition-dependent colleges and universities of all sectors. This subject is sensitive because of the claims by many tuition-dependent colleges and universities that they serve the public interest even while graduating a small minority of their students. The latest round of debates on PLUS loans and private historically black colleges and universities has gone to HBCUs, with what appears to be largely a reversal of the Obama administration's efforts to tighten credit-worthiness criteria for parents. The solution to the dilemma of the nonselective tuition-dependent college should not be the exploitation of families but the direct support of valuable institutions, which is why two more steps are necessary.

4. Use the Experimental Sites waiver provision of Title IV (the portion of the Higher Education Act with the rules for most student aid programs) to let public and nonprofit colleges work together on the student-services and business sides of their work, creating consortiums that draw on common services for some critical supports. Using Experimental Sites to improve student services and tighten the business operations of colleges is far more likely to help students than using Experimental Sites for MOOCs. In May, Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc complained that federal rules prohibited nonprofits from working together on bundled services, even as many used commercial (and more expensive) corporations such as Academic Partnerships. Now, LeBlanc thinks that Experimental Sites might allow that bundling of services in the nonprofit college world. While LeBlanc would like SNHU to provide bundled services for online, competency-based education, we can extend the concept to consortiums of nonprofits with common interests, such as relatively nonselective HBCUs, and encourage such consortiums to address issues that most directly affect student persistence and completion and that can reduce costs if shared between institutions.

5. Directly support consortiums of tuition-dependent colleges and universities, contingent on sharing of relevant data on student progress and completion. If the federal government provides technical assistance grants supporting both instruction and student persistence/completion efforts to consortiums of nonselective public and private colleges, it could make data-sharing a condition of such grants. This could be accomplished through the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE).

Together, these five steps address the general goals the president is targeting but likely without needing the Higher Education Act to be amended. None of them require the assumption of finely tuned ratings, and none should require a huge amount of statistical work by institutions beyond what Title IV colleges and universities must track today. The greatest difficulty is likely in using the appropriations process for the first and last steps -- and my guess is that it is easier to persuade Congress to send money to the states to reward colleges that graduate poor and moderate-income students than to ask members of Congress to give up their FIPSE earmarks.

But as long as no statutory change is required, there is some hope of addressing the fundamental dilemma with allowing loans to prop up tuition-dependent colleges and universities. The controversy over HBCUs and student/family loans is one form of a broader question untouched by the ideas above: How can we address the needs of tuition-dependent private colleges that admit students with weaker records -- when it is difficult to separate exploitative institutions from institutions that have an historical record of serving the public good? In the last century, black college graduates have represented a disproportionate number of African-American professionals after college. That history does not justify indefinite indirect subsidies by the federal government through student and family loans, especially given the inability to discharge educational debt in bankruptcy. But it does justify an understanding that some private institutions have low graduation rates while meeting a legitimate public purpose. In that regard, HBCUs constitute the canaries in the coal mine for tuition-dependent institutions more generally.

Advocates of a federal ranking/rating system argue that they can adjust measures of student success by the difficulties of serving the institution's population. I am skeptical of that claim, in part based on the experience with K-12 accountability algorithms that repeatedly fail to demonstrate sensitivity or specificity in identifying weakly performing schools, and in part based on the substantial disconnect between the available database (IPEDs) and even the best social scientific attempts to quantify entering-student needs. My experience and common sense about statistics lead me to believe that a federal ranking/rating system would not be worth all the candlepower that the White House is going to put into it. Or fairy dust sprinkled into the computers.

Instead of trusting a magical-algorithm approach, we should provide some direct support to such institutions in a way that allows them to be a little more efficient business-wise, boosts capacity in supporting students, and provides a little more accountability. The last two suggestions above focus on those goals. For tuition-dependent private colleges and universities that are allergic to sharing records, they could join together in consortiums without getting federal assistance. Those that most desperately need direct support and technical assistance would access to resources, with the understanding it comes bundled with accountability and sharing of data.

I am highly skeptical that the president's desire for a rating system will do much good. But it is not enough for skeptics of college ratings/rankings to point out all their flaws. We need concrete policy alternatives, ways to get to the same end without them. The above is my not-so-modest attempt to tackle that goal. It eliminates the Perfect Algorithmic Mechanism (that is DOA anyway) in favor of simpler, more robust mechanisms. And for tuition-dependent nonprofits that have a claim of serving the public good by serving especially needy students, it has the option of providing modest direct support in return for sharing of data.

But my attempt may not be the best option. What is your proposal for targeting aid to the most needy students in a way that realistically could happen in the next few years?

Sherman Dorn is a historian of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He wrote Accountability Frankenstein (Information Age Publishing, 2007) and blogs here.

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“Global Outreach and Leadership” (GOAL) conference

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Some Nevada faculty question state's decision to reinstate merit pay without ending furloughs

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Nevada faculty members want to know why the state is restoring bonus pay for some while requiring all professors to take 6 days of unpaid leave a year.

Open letter to President Obama on college costs

Dear President Obama:

In higher education policy, you and Secretary Arne Duncan have consistently focused on two goals of critical national importance: 1) Expanding access to higher education and degree completion rates, especially by low-income, minority, and first-generation students, to increase the number of Americans who enter the work force with 21st-century skills; and 2) Making college more affordable to more people. As president of the major service organization for more than 600 private, nonprofit colleges and universities, I want to assure you that the leaders of these institutions share your goals — and have a track record of achieving them.

This truth is often obscured by myths about America’s private colleges — that they cater only to an elite, that they are not affordable, that debt levels for graduates are excessive, that liberal arts degrees are not viable in the workplace. Each of these myths is demonstrably false.

Mr. President, I am confident that your own experience of higher education — as an undergraduate, law student, and faculty member at independent colleges — leads you to understand the engine of opportunity and social mobility that these colleges provide to students and the resource pool of innovation that they provide for our nation. In fact, the effectiveness of this sector of higher education — in providing access, affordability, timely graduation, and employable skills — could provide models for the most valuable use of scarce tax dollars.

Let me first address the question of affordability, which looms so large in today's constrained economy. In private, nonprofit colleges and universities today, students on average pay about half the full cost of their education. The stereotype is entirely false that private colleges enroll students who are much wealthier than those at public universities. In fact — counterintuitively — there is a higher proportion of low-income students at nondoctoral private colleges and universities than at public research universities.

First-generation college-goers account for one-third of all enrolled students, and low-income students account for about 30 percent of all students in private colleges. Moreover, private scholarship funds total six times the amount of federal funds awarded to students — effectively leveraging the value of tax dollars for higher education. Extremely significant as well is the issue of opportunity costs; students of all backgrounds are more likely to graduate on time at private colleges, further reducing the total cost of their education.

In considering the affordability of a college education, much has been made recently about student debt. The fact is that most students have manageable debt and they repay their loans. What is "manageable debt"? The median debt for a four-year degree at a private college or university is $22,380 — about the same as a moderately priced car (and in fact not much more than the median debt at a public university). But the college degree appreciates, while the car depreciates. Estimates for the differential in lifetime earnings for a college degree vs. high school diploma are $700,000–$1,000,000, which is not a bad return on investment.

Recently, the $1 trillion in total student debt has been trumpeted as a "scare quote" in headlines. Not noted is the fact that this large number is a direct result of increased numbers of enrolled students, especially those with modest financial resources — itself an indication of progress in fulfilling Great Society objectives even during a weak economy. Our country has, quite remarkably, increased the number of college-goers — from fewer than half of all high school graduates 50 years ago to almost two-thirds today. This achievement is a result of the commitment by many over two generations — the federal government’s repeated willingness to increase Pell Grants, state governments’ expansion of the number of places at state universities (each heavily subsidized by taxpayers), and private colleges’ aggressive fund-raising for scholarships from nongovernmental sources to keep college affordable. All Americans can take pride in this example of shared responsibility.

This is decidedly not a picture of college costs "out of control" or, as you phrased it recently at Knox College, "an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up." That speech referenced tuition increases of up to 7 percent. Perhaps this applies to a few universities. But private colleges, surveyed last year, increased tuition by only 4 percent on average and the trend has been downward. In fact, in recent years the net cost to students at private, nonprofit colleges has declined when adjusted for inflation.

It's also the case that most of the large percentage increases in tuition at state universities are direct results of cuts in state government funding. In addition, nearly every college and university in the country has recently taken measures to cut costs, such as eliminating staff and faculty positions, restricting pay increases, and delaying maintenance and construction projects.

Mr. President, on numerous occasions you and Secretary Duncan have encouraged colleges and universities to use technology to achieve cost savings in instruction. I am certain you recognize that more than two-thirds of colleges are already active in efforts to blend online with face-to-face learning. But an entirely online education, while better than no education, does not provide a student with the same learning outcomes and lifelong advantages as a live education on a campus with frequent interaction among students and between students and full-time professors.

It’s this distinctively American form of education — with room for questioning, discussion, creativity, interpersonal dynamics, and supportive faculty — that has made American colleges and universities the envy of the world and widely imitated.

Impartial research literature overwhelmingly shows that students at traditional institutions learn more, finish their degrees faster, and exhibit more postgraduate success in such aspects of life as civic participation. The reputation for innovation and educational quality — enjoyed by both America’s research universities and our small colleges — is well-deserved. Our national goal, therefore, should be to make the best form of American education — face to face — available and affordable for as many people as possible, to use blended approaches carefully, and not to make a less effective form — online only — the norm for everyone except a fortunate few. Indeed, such a prospect of a two-tiered system (to put it crudely: personal instruction for the few, online instruction for many) would pose serious threats to our democracy.

In the same week that you spoke at Knox College, Forbes magazine issued its survey of "top performing" colleges, and shortly thereafter Georgetown University’s Anthony Carnevale released an analysis of the affordability of college and the low percentages of low-income students at many “selective” universities. Curiously, both analyses chose to focus on only the "best" institutions but defined the group of selective institutions broadly. If the goal of such studies is to increase college participation among low-income students, it is odd to examine the effectiveness of only a fraction of America’s 4,000 colleges and universities. Forbes’s analysis starts with 650 of what it considers the best-performing institutions, and Carnevale’s begins with 468. (Most observers would argue that only about 100 colleges and universities are truly selective — that is, able to assemble a freshman class from an overabundance of well-qualified applicants, giving weight to virtually any factor of merit or need it chooses, and most able to meet every dollar of financial need.)

While there are few surprises near the top of Forbes’s list, more interesting details can be found farther down the list because they offer hints for the design of public policies. First, the top 217 colleges (or one-third of the 650) include every kind of college and university — large and small, public and private. Second, among the 117 colleges just below the top 100 are 40 smaller, private colleges that are not well-known beyond their regions. These colleges are market-sensitive, have room to expand, spend large amounts of their own resources as financial aid in order to enroll many low-income and first-generation students, and graduate students quickly. The vast majority of their graduates remain in-state.

While the top 100 colleges enroll 17 percent of their students from low-income backgrounds, smaller, private, nondoctoral colleges and universities, despite smaller endowments and less selective admissions, enroll approximately one-third of their students from low-income backgrounds. Most impressive is that the numbers of graduates of small, private colleges who enter careers in high-priority fields such as STEM are proportionally much higher (although small in absolute numbers) than the percentage who start their studies in these fields at many larger universities. In short, even within the second 100 of the “top” 650 institutions, the patterns of institutional performance differ from the myth of higher education’s unresponsiveness to your objectives. A great deal more could be achieved by harnessing the commitment of all 4,000 colleges and universities.

Your twin national policy goals of access and affordability could be advanced most rapidly if private colleges and universities, especially those at the middle levels of selectivity, were given a larger role. Their track records point to educational practices that could easily be brought to a larger scale. Their demonstrated cost-effectiveness as agents of upward mobility argues for reinforcement by public policy. In the difficult budget choices that lie ahead, these institutions offer the most value in the use of scarce tax dollars. To ignore the dedication of traditional institutions, both public and private, to your goals and the resulting benefits to the country would be to forego a major opportunity.

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.

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Penn State announces new health insurance surcharges for smokers, others

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Penn State angered faculty when it mandated biometric tests for those on health insurance. Now it's charging extra to those who use tobacco. Faculty members -- including those who don't smoke -- are furious.

Campus administrators need to lead with their minds and hearts (essay)

Bobby Fong offers a different kind of career advice for campus administrators, focused on their hearts and minds.

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Essay on how to do strategic planning

Patrick Sanaghan and Mary Hinton consider how colleges can gain the most from an important -- and potentially difficult -- process.

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Chancellor resigns at Yeshiva University, apologizing for mishandling of sex abuse cases

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Chancellor of university retires, admitting that he mishandled allegations of sex abuse against boys at the institution's high school in the 1970s and 1980s.


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