State policy

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 Both of these common-sense requirements would be repealed by the bill.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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