Education Department

Maggie ... Yer Doin' a Heck of a Job!

News of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation of questionable student loan practices was initially met with dismissive contempt from most of the permanent players in the loan programs. The student loan industry lost precious crisis-management time to cognitive dissonance with the very idea of an enforcement agency that it didn’t control. The student aid profession and its leadership, meanwhile, went through a very public demonstration of the seven stages of grief with the vilification they suffered because of their years of coziness with lenders.

As public outrage at what was, until a few short weeks ago, perfectly respectable business-as-usual began to build, the players finally understood the Cuomo investigation for what it really was: a rout. Like ragtag remnants of a defeated army in retreat, they shed the insignia of their true identity to don the uniform of the winning side, no matter how ill-fitting and grotesque. Some of the most predatory lenders agreed to abide with the letter -- but of course not the spirit -- of the Cuomo code of conduct. Organizations that had long ago reduced their ethics to those of an impeccably honest auctioneer retreated from their prior moral stance of always letting the highest bidder win their support in contested policy debates.

Some aid organizations decided to deal with their addiction to loan industry money by going cold turkey. Others chose the associations’ equivalent of methadone treatment by refusing some lender money while accepting it in other forms. The postmodern moment was at hand when the Republican Congressional leaders -- whose previous 12-year tenure in majority will forever be remembered as the Gilded Age of loan industry rapacity -- indicated that they, too, would introduce legislation to restore integrity to the system they had done so much to create. They even joined the Democrats to pass emergency loan legislation, if only to quickly declare the endemic problems of the loan program resolved and to prevent more meaningful reform of the corporate welfare program they have set up for their political supporters in the loan industry. The point of this street theater of contrition, atonement and conversion, of course, is not real change, but a sufficiently convincing appearance of reform.

By the time Cuomo appeared before the House Education and Labor Committee for the Washington equivalent of his triumphant march, the chorus of special interests had practiced their new reformist tune enough at least to delude themselves and maybe even fool the inattentive passerby. But the careful staging suffered one fatal flaw: one of the lead actors had apparently slept through the rehearsal and was loudly and unabashedly singing off-key. Enter Margaret Spellings, stage left!

Far from striking an apologetic -- or at least conciliatory -- note for having so miserably failed to do her job while student loan corruption festered under the department’s nose, the secretary of education has chosen instead to sing an all too familiar tune of brazen defiance. On the very day of Cuomo’s testimony -- a day that, like others implicated in the scandal, she should have wisely spent away from the public eye -- she actually issued a remarkable press release to refute the reality that everyone else could by now discern.

The secretary’s statement, and her subsequent testimony Thursday before the House committee, combined outright ignorance of some of the facts already in evidence and denial of others. It also unapologetically rejected any personal responsibility for the debacle, citing the complexity of the job, which Spellings has apparently only grasped after Cuomo stepped into the vacuum created by her inattention. In fairness, the secretary’s testimony did manage to identify mistakes at her agency, but they all dated back to the period before 2001, when the administration effectively handed the loan programs to past and future employees of the student loan industry to run as they saw fit! As a rhetorical device, her Congressional appearance combined the tenuous grasp of facts, irritated denials, and vague promises that are the hallmarks of having been caught asleep on the clock. It is déjà vu, all over again: think Tommy Thompson and his ludicrous public comments as anthrax was being mailed around the country; the hapless Brownie as Katrina ravaged New Orleans; or Alberto Gonzalez as he explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee how he didn’t really run the Department of Justice.

Like so many other hopelessly under-qualified Bushies in high office, Spellings brought little by way of independent accomplishments hitherto expected of a cabinet appointee. Not only was she no Dick Riley or Lamar Alexander, her non-patronage résumé was actually even less impressive than that of her predecessor, Rod Paige! What she lacked in independent credibility for the job, however, she has made up with officious self-importance and a messianic belief that she is the right person in the right place in history to transform American higher education. Ironically, the euphemism Spellings has used repeatedly to describe this obsessive illusion of grandeur is, of all things, “accountability!”

In the Spellings lexicon, accountability is codeword for a prosecutorial assault on the traditional collegiate sector for alleged evils that range from lack of transparency, profligacy, inefficiency, and incompetence to political tendentiousness. There is no denying that, like every other human endeavor, American higher education partakes of all these qualities to some degree. And a thoughtful examination of the future of higher education would certainly not be a bad idea. But Spellings has approached the effort not only with dogmatism, but also with a Vaudevillian’s knack for committing every one of the sins for which she has taken higher education to task.

Her tenure in office has thus far consisted of a quixotic frolic to assert substantive federal control on colleges and universities through a variety of politically motivated and legally suspect maneuvers. Describing this detour from her legal responsibilities as overseer of the loan system in terms of sheer incompetence would, in a very real sense, be the more charitable explanation of the loan debacle. A more cynical mind could take the secretary’s pugilism on the collegiate front as a sideshow intended to distract attention from the wholesale looting of the treasury by the administration’s loan industry friends. But the authenticity of her performance at the hearing tends to favor the more charitable interpretation: I for one am now willing to accept that Spellings simply doesn’t get it. That she has been pursuing ill-advised policies for which she has no legal authority (like federalizing transfer of credit rules), while she failed to do what she has had ample authority and legal responsibility to do (like overseeing lenders and protecting the students and taxpayers), is apparently too complex a proposition for the secretary to be contemplating even now, after it has become clear that she has been playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

Whatever else it may bring about, the Cuomo investigation has demonstrated the emptiness of the secretary’s haughty pronouncements on accountability. What is already known of the department’s inaction -- if not outright complicity -- in the scandal amply demonstrates that accountability was the last thing this secretary demanded of the companies feeding at the federal trough on her watch. The disingenuous nature of the Spellings gospel of accountability becomes all the more apparent in light of her post facto reaction to the scandal. Her press releases and disavowal of authority and responsibility are ample enough proof that the thought that accountability applies to her as well has yet to cross the secretary’s mind.

And what’s the average borrower confronting this debacle to think? One apt thought may well be that you go to college with the Department of Education you have, not the one you ought to have. A heck of a job indeed!

Barmak Nassirian
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Barmak Nassirian is associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

What's Ahead on Student Loans in 2008

After a year in which it dominated the headlines, the student loan “scandal” has lost its head of steam. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has largely moved on to other areas of interest. And the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, which have each passed different Sarbanes-Oxley-like versions of legislation to address the issue, have also taken up other matters for now.

But that doesn’t mean that colleges and lenders are out of the woods, as the U.S. Department of Education is just getting started with administrative investigations and enforcement actions that will make the department ground zero on this issue in 2008.

In response to criticism from Cuomo, the Congress, and the General Accountability Office, the department increased its oversight of colleges and lenders during the latter half of 2007. In July, the Federal Student Aid office (FSA) sent letters to 921 colleges whose student-loan volume was almost entirely, if not entirely, with one lender. The letters were intended to remind the colleges of the requirement to provide borrowers a choice of lender. Then, on October 24, FSA sent letters to 55 of those colleges, as well as 23 lenders that held loans with one or more of the originally identified 921 colleges, requesting information and documents that could indicate the existence of improper inducements, in violation of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), and its regulations.

Those 78 colleges and lenders (and perhaps many others) should be prepared for the possibility of an administrative investigation and enforcement action by the department in 2008. Here are four things they can expect:

1. More Adversarial Program Reviews

Based on my personal knowledge of the department’s prior practice, and its current organizational structure, two different divisions that report to the Federal Student Aid Program Compliance office are currently reviewing the responses of the colleges and lenders: (1) the School Eligibility Channel is examining college compliance, and (2) Financial Partners Eligibility & Oversight is examining lender compliance. Although FSA, and not the department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), is conducting the oversight, I expect OIG to be working behind the scenes with FSA to ensure that colleges and lenders are held accountable for regulatory violations.

An examination of colleges by FSA’s School Eligibility Channel typically takes the form of a program review, which is FSA-speak for “investigation.” A program review entails an on-site visit by FSA that generally involves the collection of financial-aid documents and interviews with financial-aid administrators. Colleges receive notice that a program review will be initiated and are provided the opportunity to respond to a preliminary program review report before FSA issues a “final program review determination” letter. Colleges can expect the School Eligibility Channel to be reluctant to accept their explanations for business arrangements with lenders. There will be findings of regulatory non-compliance in the program review letters.

Lenders have historically had a much more cooperative relationship with Financial Partners Eligibility & Oversight than colleges have had with the School Eligibility Channel. Financial Partners once boasted that, as its name suggests, it works in partnership with lenders to promote best practices and to provide technical assistance. However, that collaborative approach was criticized in September 2006 by the OIG as one that “emphasized partnership over compliance.” As a result, lenders should expect a more adversarial relationship with Financial Partners, which, like the School Eligibility Channel, will conduct program reviews and make findings of regulatory non-compliance.

2. Application of an Uncertain Legal Standard

What types of agreements between colleges and lenders transgress the current prohibition against inducements? Only FSA knows. It is very difficult to discern the legal standard that FSA will apply.

The department’s longstanding interpretation of the anti-inducement provisions is that a violation requires there to have been a quid pro quo, i.e., something given for something taken. In other words, there must be a payment or other inducement provided in exchange for FFEL loan applications. That interpretation finds support within the department as far back as 18 years ago and remained the department’s position through this past summer.

In a February 1989 Dear Colleague Letter, the department described several types of business-development activities between colleges and lenders that would be deemed permissible so long as they were intended as a form of advertising or as a creation of good will, “rather than as a quid pro quo for loan referrals.” Secretary Margaret Spellings actually attached that guidance to her August 9, 2007 letter to the higher-education community urging colleges and lenders to act in the best interests of students and parents. Indeed, three months earlier, in May, the Secretary testified to a congressional committee that a payment can only constitute an improper inducement where there is a quid pro quo.

The department, however, published new regulations on November 1, 2007 that changed its interpretation of the HEA’s anti-inducement provisions. The regulations, which become effective on July 1, 2008, eliminate the requirement of a quid pro quo and replace it with a standard that will prohibit virtually all business-development activities between colleges and lenders, including efforts to create good will. The department made this change of interpretation by giving itself the authority to limit, suspend or terminate a lender from the FFEL Program if the lender is unable to present sufficient evidence that payments or services provided to a college were provided “for a reason unrelated to securing applications for FFEL loans or securing FFEL loan volume.”

In the preamble to the regulations, the department signaled that the new regulatory language is intended to prohibit virtually any payment that is provided merely for the purpose of securing FFEL loans. This would prohibit virtually all payments because FFEL lenders are, after all, in the business of securing FFEL loans. With the quid pro quo requirement eliminated, nearly all business-development and good-will activities will now be prohibited.

FSA should, of course, wait until the effective date of the new regulations before it applies this new interpretation of the anti-inducement provisions. And, even then, FSA should apply the new interpretation only to payments offered on or after that date or else risk holding colleges and lenders liable for activities that were not illegal at the time they were conducted. But FSA’s intentions are unclear, considering that it seems to already be looking to the new regulations to support its probe of agreements between lenders and affiliates of colleges.

3. Probes Into Lender Agreements With College Affiliates

Based on FSA’s letters, lenders can expect FSA to examine not only agreements between lenders and colleges, but also those between lenders and affiliates of colleges. By "affiliates of colleges," FSA undoubtedly means entities such as alumni organizations. In July 2007, as part of a highly-publicized settlement agreement with Cuomo, Nelnet agreed to stop paying alumni associations for exclusive referrals of their consolidated loans. However, agreements with alumni organizations and other college affiliates are not yet covered by the federal anti-inducement statutes and regulations.

The HEA’s anti-inducement provisions prohibit lenders from making payments “to institutions of higher education or individuals.” Although the current regulations use the slightly different phrase “to any school or other party” to describe the scope of covered recipients, once that phrase is read in the context of the HEA language (as it must be so read), the term “other party” in the regulations can only mean “individuals.” It cannot be construed to mean or to include college affiliates because such entities are neither “institutions of higher education” nor “individuals.” So FSA seems to be probing lender agreements with some entities that are not currently covered by the regulations.

The new regulations will, however, add “school-affiliated organizations” as an additional class of covered recipients and, therefore, in a matter of six months, give FSA authority in this area. The term “school-affiliated organization,” which was defined broadly by the Department, covers any organization that is directly or indirectly related to a college, regardless of whether it is within the college’s structure and control. It includes alumni organizations, foundations, athletic organizations, and social, academic, and professional organizations. But because the HEA’s anti-inducement provisions for lenders only cover payments to “institutions of higher education or individuals,” the new regulatory prohibition against payments to “school-affiliated organizations” appears to go beyond the HEA.

4. More Limitation, Suspension and Termination Proceedings

Colleges that are found in regulatory non-compliance generally receive an FPRD letter that assesses a liability against the college, or they receive a notice imposing an administrative fine. In the past, FSA initiated limitation, suspension, or termination proceedings against colleges only in the most egregious cases. FSA has never terminated a large, well-respected college from the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, and no one thinks they will do so over this. But FSA might place limitations upon them. Smaller colleges -- particularly for-profit, career colleges -- may not be so lucky.

And while limitation, suspension and termination proceedings for lenders were extremely rare in the past, FSA will now choose to initiate them. This is so because FSA can require “corrective action,” which includes a monetary payment, only as part of a limitation or termination proceeding. As a result, lenders can expect such proceedings.

That is what colleges and lenders can expect from the department in 2008 in terms of administrative enforcement. Here is what they (indeed, every American) should demand of the department: Responsible and principled leadership.

The Department Should Enforce the Law Responsibly and in a Principled Manner

Increased accountability in the FFEL Program should be greatly welcomed by all. Every taxpayer should demand that colleges and lenders, like any other recipient of our hard-earned tax dollars, play by the rules. And colleges and lenders, themselves, should insist on accountability in the FFEL Program. Where true violations of the statutory and regulatory anti-inducement provisions are discovered, FSA should put an immediate stop to it. And where those violations are flagrant or committed with a fraudulent intent, FSA should impose the most serious administrative sanctions.

But internal pressure from the OIG and external pressure from Cuomo, the Congress or the news media to severely punish violators should not be perceived by senior department officials as “cover” for FSA to impose unnecessarily harsh penalties. Getting a “pound of flesh” by reflexively imposing large administrative fines against our nation’s colleges or by unreasonably limiting, suspending or terminating the very lenders that help put our college students through school would be counterproductive.

Instead, FSA should carefully exercise its inherent administrative enforcement discretion by thoroughly reviewing each violation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a sanction is even needed. For example, regulations allow for informal compliance procedures to permit a lender to show that the violation has been corrected or to at least present a plan for correcting the violation and preventing its recurrence. However, if a sanction is needed, then FSA should fashion a penalty that is sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to achieve the purposes of the FFEL Program and to ensure its continued viability and integrity. Among the factors FSA should consider are the nature and circumstances of the violation and the violator’s history of regulatory non-compliance.


The coming year of administrative enforcement will make some people within the FFEL Program very anxious, but it will serve an important purpose. Colleges and lenders must be held to account for conduct that denied borrowers a true choice of lender as a result of improper payoffs. And the department, acting in the best interests of those same borrowers, should strictly enforce the laws on the books and exercise sound discretion in doing so. Administrative enforcement is not a one-size-fits-all process.

Jonathan Vogel
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Jonathan Vogel is a former Deputy General Counsel of higher education at the U.S. Department of Education and a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. He is now a partner with the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

Demise of a Good Idea

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education proposed to modernize its system of gathering information from the nation's colleges. Among other provisions, it would have required colleges to begin submitting privacy-protected data about individual students' academic progress. The goal was straightforward: replace a cumbersome series of surveys about discrete topics (enrollment, graduation rates, finance, etc.) with a single survey that would ultimately yield far more accurate information about institutions.

This "unit record" system would have provided much more accurate information about individual colleges. The current federal graduation rate measure, for example, doesn't give colleges credit for students who transfer and graduate elsewhere -- a problem in an era of increasing mobility. By matching student records from multiple institutions, the system would give colleges full credit for students who start or finish their careers elsewhere. Colleges with a transfer mission, like community colleges, would benefit most. The system would also show "net price" -- student costs after institutional financial aid packages are taken into account, which often runs thousands of dollars less than the sticker prices commonly reported by the press. In other words, the unit record system would make most colleges look more successful and less expensive than current data suggest. And these are only a few of the informational benefits the system would bring.

Yet the reaction to the proposal from parts of the higher education community was nothing short of apoplexy. While the public university and community college associations were generally supportive, lobbyists from organizations like the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities began throwing around words like "Orwellian" with abandon. Public opinion surveys filled with leading questions were commissioned, op-eds were placed in The Washington Post, and meetings were convened with members of Congress. The very idea of thousands of colleges and universities sending electronic files bulging with Social Security numbers, diploma information, and other potentially sensitive data about millions of students to a single repository in Washington -- one presumably full of huge, ominously buzzing computer servers where the data would be analyzed without students' consent -- was said to be dangerous and downright un-American. It would also be a terrible financial burden, institutions said, another unfunded mandate sucking funds away from students and education.

So awful was this idea that higher education lobbyists had language inserted in proposed versions of the federal Higher Education Act to ban the system outright, language that is now being considered in final negotiations over the bill. When the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education released a draft report endorsing the system in late June 2006, the president of NAICU, David Warren, called it "an assault on Americans' privacy and security in the shadow of the fourth of July."

All of which is strange, given that just such a centralized, DC-based system -- complete with the big computers, social security numbers, and all the rest -- already exists. The same institutions that are busy denouncing the hypothetical federal system happily send individual student data to this very real system, several times a year. It's called the National Student Clearinghouse, and it's located one of those indistinguishable suburban office buildings off the highway in Herndon, Va., about 25 miles from the halls of Congress, where it's run by a non-profit organization founded by the student loan industry. I've been there, twice.

The fact that some higher education leaders are waging war against the federal system while simultaneously supporting the lender-enabled system does much to separate rhetoric from reality when it comes to questions of information systems, student privacy and higher education. It turns out to be perfectly possible to gather and organize massive amounts of potentially sensitive information about college students in a safe, responsible way. And most colleges are more than willing to participate -- as long as it's in their financial best interest to do so.

The Clearinghouse was founded in 1993, and was originally named the National Student Loan Clearinghouse, because that's exactly what it was, and is: a solution to a student loan information problem. America is a big country; there are thousands of colleges and universities, along with thousands of financial institutions that provide student loans. Most students don't start paying off their loans until after they leave college. That means that lenders have a vested interest in knowing exactly when students leave, so they can start sending them polite (and eventually less polite) letters asking them to repay. Lenders can't really rely on students for this information. ("Yeah bro, still in school. Majoring in, um, art history now. It's my, you know, personal calling.") They have to get it from the colleges themselves. Historically, that meant that each lender had to maintain some kind of ongoing information reporting relationship with hundreds or thousands of colleges, while each college had to do the same with hundreds or thousands of lenders. It was a hassle, and the Clearinghouse provided a better way.

The Clearinghouse is basically a gigantic nexus and storage facility for information about college enrollment. Every month or two, participating colleges send an electronic file to Herndon with a list of all the students currently enrolled. Lenders send a list of all the students to whom they've lent money. The Clearinghouse puts the lists together, and sends a third list back to each lender, detailing which of their borrowers are still enrolled and which are not. Instead of colleges dealing with thousands of lenders and lenders dealing with thousands of colleges, everyone just deals with one organization, the Clearinghouse.

Actually doing this is harder than it sounds. The student loan industry invested millions of dollars in getting the organization off the ground, and it currently employs nearly 100 full-time people to manage the process, which involves a lot of matching algorithms, data protocols, and the afore-mentioned large computers. But the important thing to understand is that it works. As of today, over 91 percent of all the college students in America are enrolled at one of the 3,100 colleges and universities that send individual information about them to the Clearinghouse, whether or not they took out a student loan. The Clearinghouse employs elaborate security procedures that have never been breached, and is fully compliant with the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

While the Clearinghouse was originally created to fulfill a specific purpose, it has gradually branched out into other areas, including providing degree verification for employers and information for researchers and K–12 school systems. It was Clearinghouse data that allowed Chicago Public Schools to learn that less than half of its graduates who went on to college were earning a bachelor's degree within six years, and at some local institutions success rates were lower than 20 percent. The Clearinghouse also provides reports and analyses to colleges, letting them find out, for example, where all the students they accepted but didn't enroll chose to enroll instead.

It's all perfectly logical and above-board. Which is the point -- colleges and universities have no principled objection to centralized databases of student information. They're happily sending unit-record data to one right now. There are, for example, 43 private colleges and universities represented on NAICU's board of directors. Of them, 38 were enrolled in the Clearinghouse system as of April 21, 2008.

The controversy around the proposed federal unit record database is a power struggle masquerading as a fight for student privacy. Colleges don't mind sharing information with lenders because they have a mutually beneficial relationship, each providing a market for each other's services. By contrast, colleges are deeply suspicious of any new entanglements with the federal government. Throughout the nation's history, Uncle Sam has adopted a hands-off approach to higher education, providing no direct operating support and asking for little or no say in the conduct of universities in return. That appears to be changing, as federal lawmakers are increasingly asking tough questions about price and quality, suggesting that the former is too high and the latter is too low.

There is an important discussion to be had about the federalism and the proper relationship between the academy and the state. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't have an unlimited claim on student information, and the benefits of any system should be weighed against the costs of compliance for institutions. More broadly, the need for public accountability must be balanced with the American higher education's traditional strengths of diversity and autonomy. And the need for stringent privacy protections for students goes without saying. Of course, the National Center for Education Statistics, where higher education data is held, already collects large amounts of student-level data through its extensive series of longitudinal surveys. And like the Clearinghouse, its security record is unblemished.

But the private college lobby doesn't want to have a serious conversation about these issues. Instead, they've built an argument on hypocrisy and misrepresentation, arguing on Capitol Hill against student information systems even as they help build one just a short drive away.

Kevin Carey
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Kevin Carey, whose "Outside the Circle" column debuts today, is research and policy manager at Education Sector. His previous piece for Inside Higher Ed was about the global spread of college rankings.

Pell Grants: Glass Half Full

President Obama’s avowed goal is to provide an “education so that every child can compete in the global economy,” and in so doing to restore the United States’ leadership role by having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. He’s recognized that one of the mechanisms necessary to achieve that is to transform Pell Grants into an entitlement.

The Pell Grant program is the sine qua non of equal educational opportunity. It represents one of the most important mechanisms developed in higher education to ensure low-income students are afforded financial access to postsecondary opportunities. By all accounts, Pell Grants historically have contributed to allowing millions of low-income students unparalleled access to higher education in the last four decades, and yet they have been vulnerable to funding shortfalls and their value has frequently lagged behind college cost increases. Therefore, proposing to make the Pell Grant an entitlement is a smart step by the Obama Administration. This constitutes a much-needed, long-overdue reform.

However, unless the administration changes course, it is likely to squander this terrific opportunity for the United States to boost both its academic and economic competitiveness. The administration risks compromising this critical investment in human capital by failing to dramatically enhance investment in college retention and completion.

So the president’s reform measure, as it now stands, resembles nothing so much as a doctor’s prescription to treat a complex condition — in this case, barriers to postsecondary access and attainment — with a single medication. In isolating an important and necessary pre-condition — the provision of financial aid — but failing to consider other dimensions of this phenomenon, the treatment is doomed to failure.

Unless and until the administration addresses the full spectrum of causes, it will not achieve its goals. And until it takes a holistic approach to student aid, its enormous investment in Pell Grants will not be fully leveraged.

Simply put, the Obama administration’s definition of student aid is far too narrow. What is desperately needed instead is a more comprehensive view of student aid that reflects the recognition that low-income and first-generation students face multiple barriers — class, cultural, informational, academic, and social — to postsecondary education, and not just a lack of funds. Merely providing financial resources through mechanisms like the Pell Grant alone will not solve the problem of getting first-generation and low-income students through college. Congress recognized this more than a quarter of a century ago in the Education Amendments of 1980 when it proclaimed the principle that the TRIO programs were “an integral part of the student assistance programs aimed at achieving equal educational opportunity.”

“Without the information, counseling, and academic services provided by the TRIO programs,” the House Report went on to say, “disadvantaged students are often unable to take advantage of the financial assistance provided by the other Title IV programs, and more importantly, such students do not develop their talents by gaining access to postsecondary educational opportunities and completing a course of study once they have embarked on it.”

By investing in financial aid but not providing increases for TRIO and GEAR UP, the Obama administration is failing to raise the aspirations of low-income students and to equip them with the tools necessary to persist in their studies and, ultimately, achieve college degrees. Thus we have to conclude that in this budget, the Administration is, perhaps unwittingly, undermining its own policy goals.

There is ample evidence that financial aid alone has never been and can never be the “silver bullet” to guarantee educational opportunity. And the public investment in Pell Grants has grown so large that there is a real liability to taxpayers unless it can be properly leveraged. In fact, just over the last eight years, Pell Grants have seen a 214 percent increase in funding (from $8.8 billion FY2001 to $18.8 billion in FY2009).

Looked at another way, in constant terms, funding for Pell Grants in the last three decades has grown by 143 percent. Yet the disparity in bachelor’s degree attainment rates between students from the top and bottom quartiles of family income has nearly doubled since 1970, according to Tom Mortenson in “Family Income and Higher Education Opportunity, 1970-2006."

Through a comparison of college completion rates of Pell recipients who did and did not receive support services, we know that Pell Grants alone do not suffice to retain low-income and first-generation students. Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that six years after beginning a postsecondary program, students who have participated in TRIO Student Support Services have a higher rate of earning a baccalaureate degree (30.9 percent) than other low-income college students, regardless of whether they received (21 percent) or did not receive (8.9 percent) Pell Grants.

Yet the president’s budget continues the pattern of previous years of level funding. Funding for TRIO and GEAR UP programs that provide such vital supports to low-income and first-generation students has essentially been flat for the last seven years. By virtue of this stagnant funding as well as rising costs, TRIO programs serve 25,000 fewer students now than in 2003.

Here’s what we know for certain: This year, an estimated 1.6 million low-income students will begin their pursuit of a postsecondary degree. If previous trends continue, only 176,000 of these students will earn a baccalaureate within the next six years. And if the president’s budget proposal is enacted, about 20,000 students already in college will lose support services, thus increasing the likelihood that they will fail to earn degrees.

Is it possible that President Obama is ignoring his campaign promise to support TRIO, GEAR UP, and the first-generation and low-income students the programs serve across the country? During a May 2008 speech in Denver, then-candidate Obama said the key to improving the lives of American families was to “expand college outreach programs like GEAR UP and TRIO.” If these “promises” are to become reality, President Obama must act decisively to assume responsibility for students’ success now. America simply does not have time to “wait and see” while the futures of hundreds of thousands of low-income students hang in the balance. Their futures are our own.

Arnold Mitchem
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Arnold Mitchem is president of the Council for Opportunity in Education.

The Misguided 'Online Skills Laboratory'

While seeking to make college more affordable and accessible, the Obama administration has launched a worrisome but largely unnoticed assault upon the nation’s publishers and the vibrant market in online learning. The U.S. House has approved a White House-backed provision to provide $500 million to develop free, and “freely available,” online college courses.

The administration is pushing forward with its trademark certitude; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan humbly suggested last week that the administration’s American Graduation Initiative is the 21st century counterpart to Abraham Lincoln’s Morrill Act and to the landmark post-World War II GI Bill.

Duncan is particularly enamored with the $500 million to develop the “Online Skills Laboratory,” in which the federal government will “invite” colleges, publishers and “other institutions” to create online courses for Uncle Sam in a variety of unspecified areas. The feds will then make the courses freely available and encourage institutions of higher education to offer credit for them.

The proposal is both short-sighted and destructive. It’s one thing to encourage providers to develop ”open source” wares and to promote measures that encourage publishers, colleges and universities to reduce costs and save students money. But it’s another thing entirely for the federal government to use taxpayer dollars to provide services that will undercut those offered by self-sustaining private enterprises.

First off, it’s not clear what problem the administration hopes to solve. Online courses already exist and are offered by an array of publishers and public and private institutions. Access to online courses is hardly an issue. Online enrollment grew from 1.6 million students in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007, when the figure equaled more than 20 percent of total enrollment at all U.S. degree-granting institutions. U.S. News and World Report reports that nearly 1,000 higher education institutions provide distance learning. For-profit online providers reported that online enrollment was up more than 25 percent from summer 2008 to 2009.

More than half a dozen major textbook publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, W.W. Norton & Co., and John Wiley & Sons, as well as hundreds of smaller providers, develop and distribute online educational content. To take one example, Pearson’s “MyMathLab” is a self-paced customizable online course that the University of Alabama uses to teach online math to more than 10,000 students a year. Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, says that new course development is not a “terribly high need,” and “I’d rather see more of the money go into scholarships for online learning than reinventing courses that have already been invented.”

Now, I’m as skeptical of big publishing as most, and make no claims for the quality of any particular product. But the point is that exactly the kinds of online courses and materials that Duncan and the House are calling for already exist. If Duncan’s claim is that somehow these same providers or new providers will deliver a better-quality product when hired by Uncle Sam, he needs to make that case.

Further, if there is such urgency to act, it is hard to understand why the administration wants to launch a federally directed effort to develop new materials rather than find ways to leverage those that exist.

What is it that federal dollars will buy that isn’t already available? As Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers, has noted, “State-of-the-art, market tested and validated educational materials are already available and in use by millions of students at virtually every public and private college campus in America…. Why spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the government to attempt to replicate products that already exist?” Sure, Allen is an interested party here, but that doesn’t make the observation any less true.

If the administration is concerned about cost, cost-cutting new providers like StraighterLine illustrate that the efficiencies created by new technologies and delivery systems are already allowing some providers to start offering dramatically cheaper instruction.

Today, the chokepoint is often not the lack of existing online courses or materials but the fact that colleges and universities offer them at prices that approximate those charged to students enrolled in more costly traditional instruction. Of course, this stickiness in price has been due to credentialing and regulatory practices that impede the emergence of low-cost entrants; state-funded institutions that use new e-learning students to cross-subsidize other units; and proprietary operators that have happily responded to this cozy arrangement by competing on convenience rather than price.

Rather than addressing the anti-competitive arrangements and cross-subsidies that have led colleges to profiteer at the expense of students, the administration is pushing to spend half a billion dollars to procure online courses that will be offered free of charge to all comers, both in the U.S. and overseas. The proposal would hide true program costs from both student and taxpayer.

This is sensible only if one assumes that federal contracting and oversight ensure better outcomes than market transactions. But this is the same administration that explains that the “public option” is desirable in health care precisely because it believes in market competition. Moreover, if experience with online education during the past decade is any guide, there is little reason to believe that colleges and universities would actually pass cost savings produced by taxpayer-funded courses on to students.

The measure also manages to raise concerns about academic freedom and stifling critical research and development.

Federal law has long buttressed academic freedom and intellectual pluralism by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from exercising control over “curriculum, program of instruction … text books, or other educational materials by any educational institution.” The administration would suddenly have the department funding the creation and dissemination of entire courses. Once the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a freely available course financed with taxpayer funds, it will be difficult for all but the most expensive or distinctive institutions or providers to justify paying for an alternative offering. For the huge swath of the curriculum represented by general and introductory courses, it is not a stretch to imagine that federally-sponsored courses would become a de facto national college curriculum.

As for R&D and market innovation, Duncan’s proposal is a profoundly short-term solution. If the federal government started freely offering large swaths of cell phone service, it would be difficult for providers to retain customers. The result would be the gradual erosion of the market place and reduced investment in new products or services. Short-term savings would be gained at the cost of gutting the sector’s ability to keep innovating and improving.

The administration and Congress might want to think twice about undercutting publishing and computer software when the copyright sector, which employs more than five million people, is already wrestling with intellectual piracy and declining print sales.

For those who think that the U.S. Department of Education can develop instructional programs and identify promising innovations and opportunities more effectively and efficiently than the messy market place, the “Online Skills Laboratory” must sound like a swell idea. For those who believe that functioning markets generally yield better outcomes than state-directed enterprises, it is a very troubling development.

Even as his administration has become the majority shareholder in General Motors, appointed a “pay czar” to oversee compensation at the nation’s major banks, and endorsed a “public option” to ensure “competition” in a health care market already populated by more than 2,000 insurers, President Obama has taken pains to explain that he is acting reluctantly and only under duress -- and that, as he told Fortune magazine last year, he continues to be the same “pro-market guy … I always have been.”

The president explained at the time, “I still believe that the business of America is business. But what I also think is that with all that power … comes some responsibilities -- to not game the system, to not oppose increased transparency in the market place, to not oppose fiscally prudent measures to balance our budget.” If the president meant what he said, it is hard to fathom why his administration is moving to undermine productive enterprises, obscure price mechanisms, and spending a half-billion dollars to replicate existing products.

If the president is a “pro-market guy,” this would be a good time to show it. Does he really want to add chief of the national “Online Skills Laboratory” to his list of burdens?

Frederick M. Hess
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Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Giving the Community a College

I have just begun my 47th year teaching physics at the college level, and although my entire career was spent at four year colleges, I did some part time teaching at two community colleges as well. I don't claim to be an expert, but I did learn that the community colleges have many students who are motivated, bright and far more mature than they were at an earlier attempt at college.

The institutions have other students as well. People looking for a convenient way to take a course or two, and a large contingent of individuals who are seeking a career. Seemingly, the mindset of government has settled on this group as representing the raison d'etre of the community college system and the conversation is centered around terms like training, career, Labor Department partnership and employment and earnings outcomes.

Somehow a vast enterprise that many had hoped would serve as an alternative path toward a college degree, with all the learning outcomes that the degree used to stand for, was subsumed in a process for providing jobs. The question we must ask then, particularly about community colleges, but also about many strongly career oriented colleges, is: Are we misleading our students? Are we prematurely sending them on a path to become workers instead of leaders? Craftsmen and middle level managers, but not creators, visionaries, risk takers?

Not that there is anything wrong with the former outcomes. Most of us -- even some who bear the lofty title of professor -- are really not much more than journeymen trying to do an honest and effective job. But these are outcomes that are determined by circumstances, by the economy, by fortune, by need.

They should not be goals set by a postsecondary institution, let alone by a government. The goals of a community college, like the goals of a college, should be to contribute to the transformation of the individual, to sharpen his/her thinking skills, to expose students to a wealth of ideas, and to create the lifelong learner who is an active participant in the intellectual life of society, even as s/he is engaged in a more prosaic career.

College should be sending a message of internal growth that creates the confidence to deal with a rapidly changing world, to know, to understand, to explore, and to think. Interestingly, these factors are essential ingredients in career success as well. Rare is the individual who will spend his/her career in the subject area for which s/he was originally trained. Change is everywhere, incessant and demanding. The nursing graduate who cannot continually adapt to methods, new techniques, and to new equipment is probably obsolete on the day s/he graduated. The same is true for the laboratory technician, the pharmacist, the business person, and the counselor.

Yes, we must have career preparation. People do need jobs and they need entry level skills. More, the potential for a job is a powerful motivating factor. But students must also be prepared for the challenges of change, the new demands of an evolving society, and the new environment which both limited resources and the accelerating scientific discoveries are creating.

The people teaching at community colleges and at career oriented four year schools are as fully qualified as many of the people teaching at research universities, and the fundamental reservoir of talent, of ideas, of a love of learning is as intense and as broad in a community college environment as anywhere else. There is so much more to the community college than what is appropriate for alignment with the Department of Labor, as useful as such tie-ins may be.

The intellectual discourse, and the leadership emanating from the Department of Education, should focus first and foremost on education. Our young people must continually hear the importance of learning, not for any ulterior purpose, but for itself. Just as law schools teach law, while review courses prepare lawyers, the mission of postsecondary entities should be to educate, and only as a secondary goal to prepare for careers.

Bernard Fryshman
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Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.

Institutional Interests, Statewide Concerns

Good public policy for higher education is more than the sum total of individual college and university interests and aspirations. That statement has particular salience for state responsibilities in the present situation, in which some states have been cutting back on funding for public institutions. As the state share of institutional revenue declines, the competition between institutions becomes ever more ferocious.

Without a state capacity for analysis and planning, this competition brings on a Darwinian struggle in which the more politically connected and savvy institutions win, even though there may be a better case for others.

Florida is a poster child for the chaos that results from a weak or nonexistent state level capacity. The 10 senior institutions and the community colleges in Florida are in constant competition for the small crumbs of state appropriations remaining after prisons, Medicaid, and other mandatory programs get theirs. I mention Florida because it is now my home state, and it is sad to see the chaos that results from the absence of a capacity to look at the needs of the state and to hold institutions accountable for results including improved graduation rates, access for low income and minority students and the contribution of colleges and universities to economic growth.

This tension is now being played out at the federal level. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, and the Senate is considering similar legislation. The bill contains many important provisions for existing programs and some new ones. One of the new ones -- The College Access and Completion Fund -- would provide significant funding for higher education reform through state governments.

Predictably, the American Council on Education and several other associations have joined forces to oppose channeling the money through the states. These associations represent colleges and universities, so it is understandable that they would prefer the funds to go directly to institutions.

But I would argue that over the long run institutions would be better served by a robust state policy analysis and planning capacity that would try to slow down the “mission creep” by which regional institutions aspire inappropriately to become research universities, and would promote programs that better assure student access and retention through new and innovative funding approaches.

Institutions fear that a robust statewide capacity to oversee higher education would degenerate into regulatory approaches that would compromise their autonomy and dampen their aspirations to move up in the pecking order where research universities are at the top. There have been instances -- historically, the State University of New York (SUNY) is illustrative -- where an excessively regulatory approach has not been in the interest of either the state or the institutions.

The needed state capacity should not degenerate into regulatory approaches. Rather, institutions should be accountable for results such as graduation rates, improved access, and cost reductions.

Four years ago I was honored to serve as chair of a working group convened by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. That led to the adoption by the center’s Board of Directors of a paper on "The Need for State Policy Leadership," which set forth the need for a statewide capacity to address several critical areas.

First, the states need to have the capacity to produce the quantity, quality and levels of educational attainment needed for economic development and individual opportunity. Secondly, states should reach broad-based agreement on state priorities for improving performance in postsecondary education. Third, there needs to be a statewide capacity with sufficient resources to articulate state goals and the strategies to achieve those goals. Finally, the oversight responsibilities of state and institutional governing boards should be clearly defined and differentiated.

Unfortunately, few states have followed these recommendations, and a number have eliminated or weakened existing agencies. To reiterate, we should not look on this as a regulatory approach but a move to focus on accountability for meeting statewide goals.

I believe that H.R. 3221 is a step in the right direction and I hope that Congress will stay the course, despite the institutions’ push to the contrary.

Robert H. Atwell
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Robert H. Atwell is president emeritus of the American Council on Education.

The Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee

Administrative costs on college campuses have soared in recent years, contributing in no small measure to the striking rise in student tuition and fees. Higher education leaders themselves are at least partly to blame for this, as their institutions’ focus on rankings and reputation has led them to spend increasing amounts of time and money on non-academic matters. But true to college officials’ complaints, the growing demands of government regulation also contribute significantly to the administrative bloat.

I propose that institutions be much more explicit about the money they spend to meet federal (and, for public colleges, state) demands. They should add a line to their tuition bills called the Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee, so that parents and students (and, yes, politicians) know just how much regulation costs them. Here’s why.

The explosion in administration costs has been striking. With the number of campus administrators, on average, now equaling the number of faculty members (and, perhaps even exceeding it given the increased reliance on adjunct faculty as resources are shifted to from instructional to full-time administrative positions), it appears that the university administration has become the tail that now wags the educational dog.

Some of this administrative burden is clearly self-imposed. When college students became customers, and institutional rankings became focused on reputation, fund raising and selectivity rather than educational opportunity or academic quality, the education of students became almost incidental to the institutional priority of getting onto somebody’s – anybody’s – top 10 list.

Who has time to worry about what happens in the classroom when there are glossy brochures to design and publish, colleagues to woo (it is they who will assess your institutional reputation when ranking season rolls around), earmarks to seek, research infrastructures to build, grants to win, press to avoid, coaches to hire, merchandising opportunities to pursue and donors to cultivate? I sometimes wonder how cheaply we could run colleges and universities if we got rid of capital campaigns, selectivity ratings, federal grant programs, commercial athletic enterprises, and architectural showcasing and went back to the traditional focus on … silly me … teaching and learning.

Oh that’s right, we do know how affordable it is to educate students without all of the extras -- community colleges are the perpetual reminder of how inexpensive it can be to provide a quality education at an affordable price (although these institutions are currently under-resourced given the role they play not only as institutions of higher education, but also as the new high schools).

Rules Require Cost Shifts

Nonetheless, a great deal of administrative burden does flow from the growing list of federal regulations that may ultimately be the greatest barrier to innovation, efficiency and quality in higher education. Many of these regulations force institutions to shift valuable resources away from classroom instruction and into administrative functions and salaries, not to mention electronic data systems, non-instructional facilities, external advisory groups, and teams of consultants and lawyers who help institutions complete the annual ritual of checking boxes and submitting reports to bureaucrats who are unlikely to read them and who will never confirm their accuracy.

In fact, even when regulators know that they are asking institutions to use outdated and faulty methods to collect inaccurate data on a non-representative population of students, they still hold institutions accountable for producing the coveted report. Can you say … IPEDS?

That does not mean that all regulations are bad or wasteful. Truth be told, there are many regulations that are productive, necessary and critical to maintaining our national edge in the area of higher education. The federal regulatory framework does, in many ways, level the playing field among institutions and set minimal standards for financial and instructional integrity among a group of institutions that are increasingly focused on the wrong priorities. And for those institutions engaged in scientific research, some regulations are critical to ensuring student and worker safety and to protecting our national security when sensitive work or materials are involved (although the current regulations are outdated and far too expansive in this regard).

It is true that colleges and universities can opt out of a great number of federal regulations simply by declining to participate in certain federal programs, such as federal student aid programs and federal grant programs. But during this time of shrinking state support and significant endowment losses, can institutions afford to turn away ANY potential source of funding? I sometimes wonder if institutions ever do the math to determine if the benefits of participating in various federal programs -- and especially federal grant programs -- actually exceed the costs.

While some degree of regulation is a good and necessary thing, how do elected officials, and perhaps even more importantly, the voters, know when the regulatory burden is too great? As we see with each reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, when Congress can’t do anything to address the legitimate challenges that students or institutions face, they show the love by authorizing grant programs that will never be funded, expanding existing programs that have never shown positive results, and adding layer upon layer of additional regulations so that they can tell their constituents just how serious they are about solving all of higher education’s problems.

Congress can’t actually guarantee that undergraduates will have access to the Nobel-winning faculty featured on the glossy college brochures, and they can’t force an institution to offer enough sections of required courses so that all students can graduate in four years, but they sure can force institutions to tabulate more data and report on more things. Whether or not the data are meaningful or the reports are useful is not terribly important. One wonders, however, if for the cost of writing yet another report, the institution could have hired another professor to teach freshman composition.

Sure, it sounds good for an elected official to say that he or she is going to hold an institution “accountable” for instructional quality, or campus safety, or cost containment, but what if the regulatory framework intended to improve a legitimate problem only makes it worse? For example, what if regulations aimed at increasing retention rates serve only to provide the sort of perverse incentives that further erode institutional quality? After all, the unintended consequence of our past efforts to increase high school completion rates is that we essentially made the high school diploma meaningless, and yet we still can’t give the thing away to 20% of the population.

Or what if regulations intended to control escalating college costs serve only to make it more expensive to operate – and, therefore, attend – an institution of higher education? What if regulations intended to increase the quality of classroom instruction do nothing more than shift precious resources away from the classroom and over to the administration building?

The problem with our current regulatory system is that voters do not have access to the sort of information that would allow them to evaluate the true efficacy or the actual cost of the regulations created or imposed by the officials they elect (no, elected officials don’t write the regulations, but it is they who write the laws that require, and set the specifications by which agencies promulgate and enforce regulations). I’ll bet that the average student or parent has no idea just how many federal regulations apply to institutions of higher education, or how the compliance burden contributes to soaring costs.

Elected officials of both parties have realized the polling benefits associated with castigating higher education leaders about rising tuition costs, but do the voters understand that each time Congress passes a law, they contribute significantly to those rising college costs? In the absence of good information, voters seem to think that doing something is better than doing nothing, especially when they are misled into believing that someone other than them will pay the cost (as if regulatory costs are ever absorbed by producers and not passed along to consumers).

Calculating, Not Complaining

In order to provide students and voters with the information they need to make informed decisions, it is imperative that colleges and universities provide clear information about the true costs of these regulations to the people who ultimately foot the bill -- the students, their parents, and the taxpayers.

Instead of just complaining about regulatory burden, colleges and universities should take the time to calculate actual cost of compliance -- including the cost of personnel, information systems, specialized facilities, and programmatic changes that are required to meet regulatory standards -- and then disclose this information to students and the public on the institution’s homepage as well as on each student’s bill.

Moreover, instead of burying compliance costs in the overall tuition rate, I urge institutions to start billing students separately for their portion of the compliance costs through a line-item Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee. Utilities have used this sort of billing practice for years, and perhaps it is time that colleges and universities follow the lead to inform students of just how much the federal government shares in creating, rather than solving, the problem of rising college costs.

Then, when new regulations require the institution to hire more staff or purchase new technology, the students will understand the direct connection between the cost of attendance and increased regulatory burden. Not only will this allow academic leaders to place the cost-increase blame squarely on the shoulders of the responsible parties, but it will also provide students and the public with the information they need to engage more effectively in the democratic process.

Conversely, the data may reveal that regulatory burden contributes only minimally to rising college costs, in which case we know to start looking harder for the real problem.

Regulations clearly have associated benefits as well as costs, but there is generally scant information about the cost side of the equation and an overabundance of promises on the benefits side. It is my guess that once students and the public have access to accurate information, they may be willing to forfeit a few of those “government assurances” in order to be able to afford the opportunity to attend college in the first place.

And with a paring down of regulations to those that are truly important, institutions may be better positioned to comply more fully while at the same time allowing the dog to, once again, wag its tail.

Diane Auer Jones
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Diane Auer Jones is president and CEO of the Washington Campus and former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

Reconsider the Credit Hour

The agenda for change before U.S. higher education is already very long. But with its recent reports on three regional accrediting agencies, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Education has moved the definition of the credit hour closer to the top than I had ever imagined.

If the community procrastinates and the out-of-date Carnegie Unit becomes the default definition applied by the department, accrediting agencies and the institutions and programs they accredit will experience greater upset and confusion than they expect or want.

Based on my experience in higher education, I know that for decades faculties assigned credit hours according to a fairly complex although unwritten matrix. But perhaps I received the wrong introduction to the collegiate credit hour as long ago as 1962.

That year Lewis & Clark College, my alma mater, ran a breathtaking experiment. With several other freshman colleagues, I spent my first collegiate semester in Japan. I took four three-credit courses, two of which were completely independent study and two of which involved about six weeks of face-to-face instruction. I took exams in the latter two and turned in lengthy papers in all except Japanese language.

I could not discern any mathematical formula based on seat time and/or study time that made these each three-credit courses. Nor did it bother me that the actual workload for each three-credit course seemed different. I assumed the faculties of record, as well as the L&C faculty as a whole, must have agreed to the assignment of credit hours. Looking back on that experience, I can also testify that had time on task alone been the measure of learning, I probably deserved four credits each in a couple of those courses.

The “flexibility” of the credit hour continued throughout my collegiate career. In finishing my undergraduate studies, I had a three-credit honor’s thesis course that had no structured time commitments. It prepared me for graduate school where, after finishing a sequence of courses, I registered faithfully each semester for credit-bearing “independent” courses for my doctoral research. I assumed that everyone in the academy understood that the use of credit hours to measure student learning often was not tied to seat time or study time.

My decade as a classroom instructor essentially confirmed that understanding. During it I experienced my share of faculty squabbles over losses of a class day -- and the contact hours it represented -- to such things as post-Thanksgiving Fridays and campus-wide days devoted to the discussions of the issue of the moment. Differences among faculty opinions most often were ironed out in curriculum committees and faculty senates. Sometimes contact hours figured into those debates; sometimes other faculty expectations of student activity counted more heavily. But most faculties seemed to have a basic understanding of how to assign credits.

As I moved from campus to campus in the 1970s, I saw that this understanding apparently carried across institutional boundaries. I moved from institutions with 15-week semesters to others with 10-week semesters. I created courses for the four- to six-week courses in a “4-1-4” or a “4-4-1” academic calendar, and once I taught summer school sessions on a six-week calendar. Calendars shifted, but allocation of credit hours, at least to me, appeared to follow some well-understood “industry standards” related to mastery of course content and only loosely tied to the contact hours of a Carnegie Unit.

The fact is that professional judgment by the faculty long ago supplanted seat and study time in the determination of award of credit hours. Faculties, drawing on education and experience, determine what knowledge and skills a student should master; faculties determine how to break into courses and modules the learning processes necessary for that mastery; and faculties determine the rigor, content, and examination strategies appropriate the award of a specified number of credit hours. Individual members of the faculty might propose the course and the credit it should bear, but most often it is their faculty colleagues who make the final determination through curriculum approval processes. It has proven to be a decent system that provides a way to tally up learning while allowing for considerable flexibility in delivering education and evaluating learning.

Colleges and universities that serve adult learners by recognizing achieved learning through portfolio evaluations or ACE credit equivalency determinations or CLEP testing have for decades unbundled credit hours from a rigid formula of seat time and study time. Colleges and universities that have integrated work-study and community service into their credit-bearing courses have as well. In making these important educational pathways work, expert judgments by faculties determine the award of credit hours, either by assigning those hours directly or accepting them in transfer.

I think back on the times that credit hours influenced accreditation actions when I was with the Higher Learning Commission. To be sure, truncation of a standard academic calendar most often triggered concern. Frequently, however, the key issues had less to do with time on task than rigor of expected learning. Inevitably, expert judgment of faculty rather than contact/study hours informed the decision about the appropriateness of the challenged credit award. Those evaluation team members pored over course syllabuses, evaluated the rigor of the assigned work and study, talked with teaching faculty and students, and sometimes reviewed samples of student work. In some cases they concluded that the award of credit was pretty much in line with industry standards; sometimes they proposed that the accrediting agency require that an institution rework its internal systems for determining the award of credit; and sometimes they found the disconnect between achieved learning and assigned credit to be so out of whack that they recommended denial or withdrawal of accreditation.

The Office of the Inspector General prefers auditable measures for performance. It reads the Higher Education Act with its multiple references to credit hours to demand such measures. It appears to propose that the Carnegie Unit is a pretty good place to start. It has little patience with the difficulty of translating professional judgment into some readily auditable matrix. Considering how little that OIG really understands about higher education, I was only a little surprised by how much weight that office placed on such a weak reed.

I was surprised by how quickly voices from the academy and the department proposed that educational quality should, indeed, probably be linked to the Carnegie Unit. A yardstick based on seat time and supposedly related study time to measure collegiate learning is just the wrong tool.

Years ago others wiser than I said it was time to find a new way to measure achieved learning. That advice was prompted not by the time-on-task mentality of the OIG but instead by growing discontent over the lack of dependable transfer of credits from one college to another. Credit hours in too many transfer debates become separated from the actual learning achieved by the student. Faculties in receiving institutions are more likely to question the fit of the curriculum represented by the credits than they are to question the award of the credit hours themselves. Frequently when credits transfer, they just don’t count toward the degree. But the transfer issue has not gained enough traction to bring about a community-wide review of the credit hour.

The current OIG challenge ought to be sand under the spinning wheels of the higher education community on this matter. If the inspector general decides that when it comes to credit hours the law requires something more measurable than professional judgment and if the department agrees, then instead of retreating to the old time-on-task formulas, the higher education community must hold up for review and major revision the credit hour system of measuring learning. The community has too much experience in assigning credit hours to very different learning experiences to try to return to artificial formulas based on contact and study hours.

Clearly no one is particularly interested in having the Department of Education lead this important exercise. Thanks to the much-vaunted decentralization of higher education in the United States, leadership for the endeavor is difficult to identify easily. But a dozen leaders from higher education associations, accrediting agencies, SHEEOs, faculty organizations, and interested foundations must find a way to create a process as important to higher education in this century as the National Education Association and Carnegie Foundation efforts were to the last century. After all, the Carnegie Unit and the credit hour resulted from that seminal work.

With the Carnegie Unit hanging around as the weighty fallback in these resurrected discussions of the credit hour, we must move with dispatch to recast this academic measurement to fit contemporary higher education and the learning achieved by students in it.

Steven D. Crow
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Steven D. Crow is CEO of S.D.Crow & Co., which consults on accreditation and other issues, and former president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Higher Education's Big Lie

The notion that education, particularly a college degree, is the key to career success is a particularly American idea. It is what the sociologists W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson have called "the education gospel," a national ethos of hard work in school paying off and of equal opportunity for all. Politicians of every stripe have addressed unemployment by advising the unemployed to take individual responsibility for their futures by learning new skills and by reinventing themselves for a global economy where opportunity will materialize for those with the right credentials.

And workers have responded to the call. As The New York Times reported recently, there are now more students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education than ever before. Today, women attend college in record numbers, and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003, the number of African American, Hispanic, and other minorities enrolled in college reached the highest levels in history.

This all seems like very good news. With millions more students attending college, it makes sense to ask whether their degrees will pay off.

First of all, it is debatable whether a majority of future job openings will require a college degree. While the economist Tony Carnevale argues that jobs that require some college education will help lead a slow and painful recovery from the current recession, The New York Times reports that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most job growth in the next decade will be in labor markets where a bachelor's degree is not necessary. Furthermore, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically in recent years. Conflicting claims about the economic value of a degree along with skyrocketing tuition raise a question about whether college is a good investment for all students, especially those low-income students who can least afford to spend money and years on a higher education venture that may not produce rewards.

Secondly, the issue of college payoff becomes even more complicated when we consider that many students who begin college will not complete degrees. While the U.S. leads the world in college attendance, it is ranked near the bottom in the number of students who actually graduate. In fact, college access, which is touted as a symbol of our meritocratic ideals, leads to a degree for only about half of all students who enroll. Completion rates are even lower for first-generation collegians and people of color. According to education researcher Peter Sacks, the chance that a low-income child will earn a bachelor's degree is no higher today than it was in 1970, a grave contradiction in the meritocratic narrative of the education gospel.

In fact, as the sociologist Annette Lareau has shown in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, the qualities that lead to academic success are not linked to college access, effort, or intelligence, but to accidents of birth. For the most part, the children of affluent parents attend the best colleges and get the best jobs. Opening the doors of higher education has not altered this basic arrangement. Still, the myth persists that, to get ahead in life, the first thing you ought to do is write a tuition check.

These days it is more likely that a student's first tuition bill will be paid with money from a loan. What looks like an investment in the future, however, can often turn into an economic disaster. For example, let me tell you about Valerie, an immigrant from Haiti, who had always dreamed of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. After high school in Harlem, Valerie spent six years at a private, nonprofit, open-door college in New York City accumulating credits for a psychology degree that she finally completed in 2006.

One year after graduation, the only job she could find was working as a teacher's aide (a position that did not require a bachelor's) for $14,000 per year. She also had to work as a salesperson in a clothing store to make ends meet. This might not have been so bad except that, after years of student loans, Valerie owed almost $60,000, a sum she could never hope to repay. After returning to the same college to earn a M.A. degree, Valerie found a job as a social worker earning a $33,000 annual salary. While this was a big step up from her teacher's aide job, Valerie was still unable to meet her financial obligations, and she had begun to question whether her six-year investment of time and money had been worth it. "Is this my American dream? Am I living it now?" she wondered.

There are many students like Valerie who have been led to believe that higher education is the key to a better life. We can all point to success stories in which nontraditional collegians achieve a sense of purpose and satisfaction in the life of the mind, earn degrees, and find jobs worthy of their tremendous effort and intelligence. But there is a pervasive silence in academe about the tarnished hopes and debt loads of many other students who do not complete degrees. In 2009, Public Agenda reported that most students who leave college list economic concerns as the number one reason they did not graduate. Many smart, dedicated students who want to go to college simply cannot afford to do so. And, as Valerie's case makes clear, even those students who do graduate may not find great demand for their skills at the end of a college-to-work road paved with debt.

Student loans like the ones that financed Valerie's education are the most burdensome to nontraditional collegians, especially working-class students and people of color. These students are disproportionately enrolled in institutions that do not look anything like the colleges of popular imagination in which full-time students live on residential campuses, party on fraternity row, and attend football games.

The dire situation on many campuses has been painfully documented in Inside Higher Ed by Wick Sloane, who has studied the realities of academic life for students at a two-year college in Boston. These students are commuters who sleep in their cars and attend classes in the evenings after working all day in low-wage jobs. They take their fear, stress, and economic anxiety into overcrowded classes taught mostly by underpaid, part-time teachers while "federal tax policies . . . subsidize Ivy League and other wealthy-college students by at least $20,000 per student." These conditions suggest that underfunded colleges do a disservice to poor and minority students.

This is a position much at odds with the official designation of two-year colleges as democratic ports of entry to the middle class.

Don’t get me wrong. Many two-year colleges and open-door institutions have wonderful programs run by committed faculty and administrators who have the best interests of students in mind. Yet the Herculean efforts of these educators do not change the fact that many nonselective colleges serve the same function: they keep disaffected unemployed and low-income people out of the labor market by warehousing them in college classrooms where students pay handsomely for an education that may not serve their economic interests.

Making this argument is difficult because it sounds like I am discouraging low-income and minority students from going to college. This could not be further from the truth.

Rather, I am proposing that those of us working in academe begin to dismantle the myth that higher education can facilitate social mobility on a mass scale. In fact, the opposite is true. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, "the average effect of education at all levels is to reinforce rather than compensate for the differences associated with family background and the many home-based advantages and disadvantages that children and adolescents bring with them into the classroom." This is a shattering indictment of the education gospel. Dismantling this myth means being honest with ourselves and with our students about the role of higher education in reproducing class inequality across generations.

Such honesty also means acknowledging that mass access to college does not and cannot provide upward mobility to the vast majority of students who seek it. Access to higher education can only be one part of what must become a broad social movement to redress income inequality that is higher than it has been since the 1920s. College graduates, like Valerie, should be able to earn a living wage.

But we shouldn't stop there. As the Economic Policy Institute researcher Richard Rothstein writes, "It is certainly possible for retail salespersons, fast-food workers, and home health care aides to earn middle-class incomes, but this won't happen because these workers got postsecondary training." Rather, it will be because they have "much stronger minimum-wage and labor-union protections, [and] economic security with good health care."

Class is not a result of merit or effort or hard work paying off. It is largely a legacy transferred between generations. No matter how many college degrees are distributed, we still tolerate a system that doles out limited rewards to all but a privileged few. In this climate, the pursuit of elusive degrees more often functions as a distraction from what really provides security to families and children: good jobs at fair wages, robust unions, affordable access to health care and transportation, and a sound, affordable education for everyone, regardless of background.

These are all factors unacknowledged in the push to convince people that that, if they can't find a job, they should take sole responsibility for their fate, sign up for that first student loan, and get their pencils ready.

Ann Larson
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Ann Larson is recent graduate of the Ph.D. program in English (composition and rhetoric) at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is a writing fellow at CUNY's Hunter College.


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