State policy

Boosting higher ed performance without more state support won't work (essay)

The Committee for Economic Development’s (CED) new report, “Boosting Postsecondary Education Performance,” was not written in the spirit of Warren Buffett. Nor of Paul Volcker. More’s the pity. For if the report’s authors had acknowledged that trying to substantially boost performance without boosting investment is an unrealistic business plan, they would have seized the opportunity to change the national conversation to stimulate genuine growth and affordable, quality higher education.

Nevertheless, the CED has performed an important service in three regards. First, the report focuses on “broad access institutions,” which means “less-selective, less-expensive regional public and private colleges [and universities], community and technical colleges, and for-profit colleges.”

Too often, policy makers feature flagship publics, as if our future depends only on them. Research universities are important, particularly in graduate and professional education, creating new knowledge, and in the generally overlooked but essential role of preparing professors, the academy’s producers of value. But too much public policy privileges the already advantaged (compared to access institutions) flagships. Even the Obama administration, which has focused on community colleges, has overlooked four-year access institutions. Yet our success hinges on them.

Unfortunately, the CED report continues some policy makers’ misconstruction of for-profit universities as efficient. It is a false efficiency. As a sector, these institutions are VERY expensive to students and to the government. They have high tuition and they live largely off massive infusions of federal student aid. Disproportionate numbers of their students default on their loans at the government’s, not the corporations’ expense. That is a Wall Street bust model: high fees to average consumers, high defaults on loans for which the government and taxpayers pick up the tab.

A second contribution of the report is in emphasizing the importance of a system focus in state policy making, moving “beyond a one-institution-at-a-time approach to state policy.” Part of that focus is grounded in understanding, in contrast to too many state policy makers, that higher education is a valuable asset, pivotal to our future, not merely a cost to be minimized. With some important exceptions, most states have failed to develop policies that provide an integrated strategy for fostering affordable access to a quality higher education and ensuring a rational division of labor among institutions (a conclusion shared by Laura Perna and Joni Finney’s state policy project). The report could have extended that integration to include K-12 education, and it could have spoken more to articulation/transfer. In calling on business leaders, it could have focused on medium/small business leaders. But at least it got the systemic focus and higher education’s value as a public good right. 

A third contribution, though it likely will be lost in the rush to performance measures and “dashboards,” is the report’s recognition that “There are no proven models of state success in addressing these issues; and for that matter, one size does not fit all.” If state policymakers latch on to that phrase, internalizing the recommendation that “the strategic plan should provide wide latitude for institutional innovation through initiative and implementation,” this will be a major benefit. 

More likely, state policy makers will interpret the report to embrace a simplistic outcome measures-gone-wild approach that leads postsecondary education further down the path of the narrow numbers-blinded, short-term productivity/profit-margin-minded thinking that plagues some sectors of the corporate economy. That approach characterized Wall Street as it sought innovations (e.g., derivatives, subprime mortgages) to boost “productivity.” 

That sort of net-tuition-revenue-maximizing thinking is moving many colleges and universities away from the lower income students who are the country’s growth demographic, in pursuit of students able to pay more, with less financial aid. The CED critiqued this mentality in business, in its report, “Built to Last: Focusing Corporations on Long-Term Performance.” But it offers no cautionary note for higher education.

The new CED report misses a major opportunity to seize the historical moment. The country desperately needs enlightened business, academic, and government leaders to acknowledge that doing considerably more with no more resources is an emperor that has no clothes.

Instead, the report offers “new normal,” magical thinking as realism: “Realistically, however, given the severe budget pressures facing the states, the prospects of significantly greater public funding of postsecondary education in the short to medium term are poor.” It recommends that: “It is critical, therefore, that postsecondary institutions strive to boost their performance through productivity gains and innovation without relying heavily on new money to underwrite improvements.”

New normal thinking is provided despite noting that “public colleges and universities in some states are turning away large numbers of applicants because they cannot provide enough classrooms and instructors to handle them.” The number (about 400,000) in community colleges alone is staggering (see report of Center for the Future of Higher Education). It is provided despite the acknowledged value created by higher education that would justify increased investment. And it is provided despite the fact that the historical higher education transformations it identifies (e.g., land grant colleges, and post-WWII G.I. bill and building community colleges and four-year access colleges) required significant public investment

Although state support is at historic lows, the report suggests the U.S. already spends enough on postsecondary education, citing high average expenditures as a percentage of GDP compared to OECD countries. Yet this average ignores the steeply stratified U.S. pattern, with access universities getting the short end of the stick). The issue is inequity and “growing imbalance,” not inefficiency. The CED report could have called for redistributing appropriations on the margins to favor access institutions. It could have called on states to maintain their level of investment, rather than continuing to hack away at postsecondary budgets in an austerity strategy that undercuts our future. And it could have called on businesses to invest in the limited/nonexistent endowments of access institutions, instead of further feathering the endowment nests of the elites.

Such new-normal advice is ironic coming from a group including corporate leaders from the financial sector and companies serving it. Three-plus years ago, the nation boosted, or stimulated, Wall Street with a bailout that had no strings. Yet the CED’s CEOs’ formula to boost performance on College Street entails no infusion of monies while tightly attaching strings to colleges, though, unlike Wall Street (or Detroit), they have increased their productivity amid, in relative terms, declining state appropriations, downsized full-time faculty, and high demand from students/customers.

Increased productivity trends are particularly evident in broad access institutions. They have re-engineered their production of education: hiring increased proportions of part-time, contingent faculty; extensively using on-line distance education; experiencing record student demand and enrolling most of the national increase in student population, thereby significantly increasing student/faculty ratios. All with less public investment. Access institutions are already doing a lot more with a lot less.

What would Buffett say to the boost-performance-with-less-investment advice? Or Volcker? The time is ripe for an enlightened set of business leaders to take up the mantles of these elder business statesmen. Both have put on the agenda the need for more revenues. Buffett proposes that additional monies should come from the wealthiest Americans paying their fair share of taxes. Volcker has also supported new taxes, but also proposed the “Volcker rule,” restructuring and regulating the financial sector.  

The CED could have proposed two sets of measures. One would increase the tax rate on the wealthy and close tax loopholes benefiting the largest corporations.  The U.S. individual income tax rate for the wealthy is historically low, lower than for middle and working class Americans. Collected corporate taxes (versus the formal tax rate) are also low. Indeed, reports have highlighted the “Dirty Thirty” Fortune 500 companies that pay no taxes (or get refunds), contributing to federal and state budget deficits. The CED could have called for closing tax loopholes that enable companies to pay little or nothing despite increased profits. That might have been hard given that “Dirty Thirty” companies such as G.E., Wells Fargo, Fed Ex, Honeywell, American Electric Power, and Tenet Health Care, are on its board and committees. But it would have been fair.

A second set of measures would restructure the financial sector and higher education’s priorities. In the former, a financial transactions tax could serve as a disincentive to the proprietary trading activities that led to the collapse. Some revenues could be directed to schools and access institutions. In higher education, just as the Volcker rule separates proprietary trading from the traditional functions of banks to protect the core and the customers, colleges and universities should refocus monies on their core, academic functions, to the benefit of students, reversing 30 years of reduced shares of expenditures going to non-educational programs and personnel.

In not proposing such “disruptive innovations,” the CED report guarantees that the system will continue to operate on a C.O.D. basis -- collecting on the delivery of education, from students. That will further shift the burden to middle- and lower-income families, rather than requiring the wealthy and large corporations to bear their fair share of investing to boost access to affordable, quality higher education, for the public good.

Gary Rhoades is professor of higher education at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. He also directs a virtual think tank, the Center for the Future of Higher Education.

Kentucky limits on debt issuance hinder university constructions

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Kentucky's restrictions on university debt, at a time when many public universities are turning to bonds in lieu of state funding for capital projects, further hinder construction at state institutions.

Pikeville abandons plan to become state university in Ky.

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Facing political opposition, private Kentucky university scraps push to become a state institution.

Essay argues against bill to overturn U.S. rules on higher ed oversight

America’s leadership in the global economy depends on a highly skilled, highly educated workforce. That’s why taxpayers support aid for higher education. But taxpayers rightly demand that their dollars be spent only on bona fide educational programs, and students deserve the opportunity to be educated, not just enrolled.

The Department of Education has a fundamental responsibility to taxpayers and students to make sure aid dollars are spent appropriately. Therefore, I and many of my colleagues have deep concerns about legislation passed last month in the House of Representatives that would limit effective oversight of the nearly $200 billion in student financial aid granted or guaranteed each academic year by the federal government.

Known as the “Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act” (H.R. 2117), the bill takes aim at the federal minimum standard for a “credit hour,” the basic unit for evaluating instructional programs. This bill would not only repeal the current regulations on what constitutes a credit hour, which are eminently reasonable, but also prohibit the Secretary of Education from ever promulgating a regulation in the future.

I am also concerned by the bill's repeal of the Department of Education's state authorization regulations, including vital consumer protections. The federal government has always required that colleges and universities be authorized by their states in order to receive federal aid funds, and current regulations stipulate that States must have a process in place to evaluate student complaints. Both of these common-sense requirements would be repealed by the bill.

Under the bill, for example, my home state of New York would have no recourse if a university based in a state with less stringent quality and curriculum requirements began operating a distance learning program that enrolled New York students.  In short, the bill would make it impossible for states to guarantee the quality of programs operating inside their borders.

Federal regulations define an academic year as consisting of 24 to 36 credit hours and mandate that a student must carry at least 6 credit hours to be minimally eligible for financial aid. So if this bill became law, the government would determine eligibility for financial aid using a unit that is completely and permanently undefined. That situation is not only nonsensical, it also represents a threat to the government’s ability to police institutional fraud in the higher education industry.
 
Two years ago, the Department of Education's inspector general found that some colleges were awarding students more credits than they had actually earned, which allowed the institutions to collect more financial aid than they deserved. In response, the Department of Education formulated a reasonable minimum standard for the credit hour based on the so-called “Carnegie Definition” of instructional units, which has been widely used for decades. The federal regulation is also virtually identical to a regulation in place in New York State since 1976.
 
The regulation defines a credit hour as the amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency reasonably approximating not less than one hour of classroom instruction for 15 weeks per credit hour. The regulation’s use of the phrase “institutionally established equivalency” places the responsibility for determining what a credit hour is, within the context of a broad federal framework, where it belongs — with the faculty and with the accreditor of that particular institution.
 
I am very familiar with New York’s regulation, as I administered a college in Long Island for many years before I was elected to Congress.

Our cost of compliance with the credit-hour regulation was exactly zero, and we were able to create innovative programs including a semester at sea, cooperative education, internships, and courses that met in compacted time formats for 4 and 5 weeks -- all because we established an institutional equivalency that was sanctioned by our faculty, our accreditors, and -- for that matter -- the regulators in the State of New York.
 
The contention that this regulation stifles academic freedom and innovation is disproved by the record of New York’s internationally prominent colleges and universities over the past 35 years. The argument that it adds to the length of time students must spend in their degree program is simply not true.
 
What the regulation actually does is protect students and taxpayers from bad actors in the higher education industry who seek to profit from federal student aid funding while providing a substandard education to students. Furthermore, the permanent prohibition on regulating credit hours is effectively an invitation to future waste, fraud and abuse in aid programs.

The explosive growth in recent years of for-profit colleges, distance and online learning programs, and other nontraditional means of providing instruction educational services demand stronger oversight, not weaker. I am hopeful the Senate will reject this bill.

U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop is a Democrat of New York.

Indefinite terms for Clemson trustees raise policy, legal questions

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Majority of Clemson trustees serve indefinite terms and do not answer to lawmakers -- uncommon independence for a state institution. Some question whether the structure is good policy.

California State approves a cap on salary increases for incoming president

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Under pressure from several directions, California State University trustees approve a ceiling on compensation for incoming presidents.

NSF report notes decline in state support for research universities

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States have decreased per-student funding for research universities by about 20 percent, NSF report finds, a rate that outpaces general higher education cuts.

University of Pikeville seeks to join Kentucky public higher education system

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U. of Pikeville will probably face political headwinds in push to become a public university in Kentucky.

Essay: Washington college grant program favors vocational over liberal education

Last year, as Washington State faced a severe budget crisis, legislators embraced a novel way to fund student financial aid: a public-private partnership between the state and private corporations. Called the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the fund attracts private donations and matches them with public money in order to support students in science, technology, and other “high demand” fields.

As Inside Higher Ed reporter Paul Fain wrote, “the thinking in Washington was that if corporations had more direct control of how their donations were used, they might be more inclined to give. “ This is exactly right -- Boeing and Microsoft quickly pledged $50 million -- but the creation of the fund must be placed in the broader context of state defunding of public higher education.

Washington’s legislators, like their counterparts around the nation, are shifting the purposes of college away from the civic and personal toward the economic and vocational, undermining the broader goals that have historically been part of American college education. (Even in the 1862 Morrill Act providing federal support for colleges in “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” legislators recognized that college education demands both “liberal and practical education.”)

The idea for the fund originated in a task force established in summer 2010 by Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat. The task force was made up of 16 members and chaired by Brad Smith, a senior vice president at Microsoft. The vast majority of task force members represented the business community. There were a smattering of higher education administrators, but no faculty or students. There was only one elected leader, the mayor of Everett, Wash. The task force’s composition alone makes clear Governor Gregoire’s approach to higher education: align it with the needs of the state’s major corporations.

Nowhere on the panel were the other interests of society represented. There were no social workers, no doctors or nurses, no ministers; there were no teachers nor civil servants; there were no artists, no writers. It should not be surprising, then, that the task force recommended a financial aid policy that not only offers corporations tax breaks but allows them to determine which college programs are worthwhile. As a Tacoma News Tribune editor wrote, there would be more aid for some students, but less for those “pursuing a degree in, say, history or business or education.”

Such an approach challenges the idea that a collegiate education is a liberal education first and a vocational education second. It ignores the civic and personal purposes of liberal education. It threatens the general education curriculum designed to prepare future leaders. It reduces students’ ability to choose majors based on their own interests, goals, and values (unless of course they are already wealthy enough to turn down financial aid).

But the scholarship fund is only one piece of Washington legislators’ larger effort to transform the broader purposes of college. Although the per-student cost of educating a college student in Washington has not changed dramatically, the share of that cost paid for by students and families has grown substantially. This shifting burden makes it harder for students to take a chance with a liberal arts major, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also means that students and their families are paying more for college and looking for ways to save money.

In response, legislators have been offering students ways around colleges’ general education requirements. Unlike a major, general education is the heart of the curriculum because it represents what all students must learn to graduate. It is designed to ensure that students receive the kind of broad education in the arts and sciences that will allow them to grow as human beings and be better civic leaders. The liberal arts also offer students the skills employers most desire: the ability to think, analyze, write, and find creative solutions to problems.

But legislators have no interest in these broad goals and want students to get their general education requirements out of the way fast. For example, Washington’s “Running Start” program urges students to take general education courses in high school, where it is cheaper for students and the state. A more recent program authorizes high school teachers to teach college credit courses in partnership with local colleges. Both programs send students the signal that general education courses are a hurdle to overcome and not worth students’ time and money.

Last year, Washington policy makers launched a serious attack on liberal arts education. First, they authorized the establishment of Western Governors University-Washington, an online institution with no faculty and the most minimal of liberal arts requirements. Instead, WGU promises students degrees in vocational fields as fast as they can earn them. Second, legislators urged colleges to design three-year degrees for advanced students, which would probably mean limiting their time on campus to receive a broad education. And, finally, legislators established the Opportunity Scholarship Fund.

Other states are moving in similar directions, embracing online institutions, urging colleges to adopt three-year programs, questioning the value of the liberal arts, and shifting general education courses online to get them done cheaply and quickly. This is true even for such prestigious institutions as the University of California. And, as Montana State University students argued, such an approach denigrates a general liberal arts education, “effectively tainting the goal of a program aimed at educating students in a variety of subjects.”

The broader context in which the Opportunity Scholarship Fund is situated should trouble all Americans. It threatens to transform the very purpose of college education. At a time when many commentators are noting the economic value of a liberal arts education, and our foreign competitors are embracing the liberal arts college model, it seems shortsighted for us to turn our back on it. More important, by reducing students’ access to the liberal arts, they, and our society, will lose something extremely valuable.

Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.

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