Institutional administration

Proposals to make public college free are regressive, not progressive (essay)

On the presidential campaign trail, we’re seeing one so-called progressive candidate after another call for the federal government to enact major new spending programs to hold down tuition at public universities. Here’s the thing -- the results would be regressive: the prime beneficiaries of these proposals will be wealthier students who currently do not receive means-tested federal dollars.

Let me confess: I have spent the last 24 years of my life representing private colleges and universities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and to the Pennsylvania congressional delegation. Because of that I know that the private four-year colleges and universities in Pennsylvania enroll a similar proportion of Pell Grant recipients as are enrolled at our state’s public universities, 24 percent versus 30 percent. I also know that with a few exceptions the average family income of students attending our name-brand public universities exceeds or approximates that of our private college and university students.

I get the politics of the candidates’ proposals. I understand that families are worried about paying for college. I understand that some students assume too much debt (though the average debt assumed for an undergraduate degree is a very worthwhile investment that returns far more value than a comparable loan for a new car). I understand that promising people they can attend a public university debt free is a popular political statement intended to help win an election. But let’s at least call this what it is: a cynical political proposal that is regressive in its use of government dollars to benefit upper-middle- and upper-income families.

I would like to believe that these “progressive” candidates are poorly informed about the realities of higher education finance and don’t realize that public colleges and universities for decades have been using their state-subsidized price advantage, their athletic programs and their investment in more amenities and “star” research faculty to become more selective and enroll higher and higher-income students. The correlation between income and test scores has been demonstrated repeatedly. In general, the more selective institutions become, the higher the family income of the students who attend.

Consequently, if you provide additional federal and state aid to a select group of public institutions and to the disadvantage of the private institutions with which they compete, then the government-favored institutions will ultimately become more popular, will have more students to choose from and will select the highest performers. From an institutional perspective, you are simply using your place in the marketplace to strengthen the quality of your institution by recruiting better students and making your faculty and alumni very happy. Perfectly reasonable approach for the institutions.

From a public policy perspective, however, this has many unfortunate consequences if your goal, as a country, is to increase access to quality higher education for low-income students or students who need extra preparation to make it through college.

First, those subsidies meant to make the public university more affordable will actually make it more difficult for lower-income and underrepresented students to gain admission, as they must compete with higher-income students (many of whom now attend private universities) seeking the generous government subsidy.

Second, these new federal and state government subsidies devoted to public universities will certainly result in the loss of students and tuition income at the vast majority of private colleges and universities. A relatively few private colleges and universities have enough wealth and national reputation to compete with an even larger government subsidy at the public universities. Many private colleges could be forced to close their doors if enrollment drops. Private institutions are performing a very important public service by educating hundreds of thousands of Pell Grant students each year -- 58,882 in Pennsylvania alone in 2012-13. If these institutions disappear, who is going to educate these low-income students? Not only will they struggle to get into some of the public universities, but many will struggle academically if they do get in, because the larger size and anonymity of public universities will make the learning environment less conducive for success.

Finally, all we have to do is to look at what happened the last time the federal government demanded that the states maintain their funding for the public universities to see how low-income students were hurt. As part of the stimulus package intended to shorten the 2007-8 recession, Congress required that states maintain funding to their public universities in order to receive federal stimulus dollars. As a result of this policy, several states -- including mine -- reduced their spending on need-based aid. Yes, upper-income students who didn’t receive need-based state grants received help through this increased government support to hold their tuition down. But the low-income students attending these same public universities saw their need-based grants cut and had to pay more for their college education.

These are regressive, not progressive policies.

In praising these “debt free” public university initiatives, one former Obama adviser spoke dismissively of vouchers for students, saying that the federal government needed to give money directly to public institutions. I believe that using institutional funding instead of vouchers to students (Pell Grants and state need-based aid programs) guarantees that taxpayer money will be wasted on those without need, while many with need will be left behind even further than they are today. Would a progressive even consider eliminating means-tested food stamps and replacing them with publicly subsidized grocery stores for all who want the government subsidy? Even worse, would they do this knowing that these grocery stores don’t have to allow all people to come in? In fact, that many of these grocery stores generally serve a population whose family income exceeds the national average?

Providing federal dollars to states to help subsidize low tuition at the public universities is a great idea if your ultimate goal is to pander to the public’s desire to have someone else pay for what is one of the most costly investments you can make in yourself or the members of your family.

However, it is also one of the most regressive economic stances you can take when put into practice, and we should stop pretending there is anything progressive about these proposals. Populist maybe, but not progressive.

Don Francis is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.

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The unemployment rate, community college enrollments, and tough choices (essay)

Employment and unemployment rates, much more than the number of high school graduates or other population trends -- which are important over time but very slow moving -- are the biggest factors driving enrollment for community colleges, for-profit colleges and some open-access four-year institutions.

Selective public and private colleges can control the size of their incoming classes by tinkering with admission criteria, and they tend to draw students whose decision is not whether to attend college but where. But community colleges accept anyone with a high school diploma who wants to enroll, and the size of that potential market varies depending on what the alternatives are.

For low-income students, especially at colleges where tuition is low and often covered by financial aid, the biggest cost of college is the opportunity cost -- the money a student could have earned by working instead of going to school.

In times of high unemployment, that cost for many is zero, and however hard someone might be struggling to make ends meet, going to college doesn't necessarily make it any harder. (Whether they can succeed in college without enough money for food or rent is the real question.)

But when unemployment is low and jobs are relatively plentiful, the choice to enroll is also the choice to leave money on the table, money students may need in the short term to cover basic necessities.

In that case, working in the short term also has its own long-term opportunity cost -- in the higher lifelong earnings available to college graduates.

For middle- and higher-income students, it is easy to choose the much greater long-term benefit over the short-term prospect of poor wages in a low-skill job. But for those with no savings or support from family members, and who may be supporting others with their income as well, work may seem like the only viable option.

So it is not surprising that when unemployment goes up, community college enrollments tend to spike, and when unemployment goes down, enrollments drop. (See image below.)

For every 1 percentage point change in the unemployment rate from May to May, community colleges can expect a 2.5 percent change (up or down) in fall full-time enrollment.

For this fall, if the past is any indication, the 0.8 percentage point drop in unemployment from 2014 to 2015 should translate into between a 1 and 3 percent enrollment decline. Regions hitting a rough patch -- say, the energy-producing areas of the country -- may see the opposite trend.

But with states, institutions, philanthropic organizations and the federal government all working to improve college access and attainment, perhaps one day this correlation will weaken, and low-income students will be able to make the kinds of long-term trade-offs and choices for the future that their better-off counterparts have always found so easy.

Nate Johnson is a higher education researcher and principal of Postsecondary Analytics, LLC.

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Middlebury to sell stake in online language learning provider

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Middlebury will sell its stake in for-profit online language learning provider, an initiative that never sat right with many faculty members. But future online education initiatives are in the works.

How to fix a struggling, and hypothetical, small college (essay)

Just over two years ago, I wrote to the campus community to reveal the dire financial situation of our college. It is painful to recall the details, but revenues were falling, we were in serious debt and we had no viable plan for paying off what we owed in order to move forward as an institution.

After 24 months of difficult decisions and sometimes painful implementations, today I am both pleased and proud to tell you that St. Bridget’s is well on the way to reversing our indebtedness and putting the college on a solid financial footing. As part of this process, we are modernizing and streamlining the college to face the rest of the 21st century.

It has not been easy, and I thank all members of the community who took the time to understand our situation, contributed ideas and supported the sometimes painful, radical change that was necessary to save our college.

Part 1 of This Series
In an earlier essay, Aden Hayes
suggested that many small
colleges are kidding themselves
about their financial viability, and
imagined the conversation they
should be having. Read more.

In June 2015, the Board of Trustees met to discuss our very difficult situation and to make major decisions. It was decided -- correctly, I think -- that the college needed fundamental changes, and not simply a fund-raising effort to “Save St. Bridget’s.”

At its meeting two years ago the board recognized that we faced major challenges and felt that all of us -- including me -- needed advice, counsel and guidance in achieving the turnaround we all sought.

The board approved the retention of an experienced, nonprofit consultancy to help us strategize. But it was the board’s call to the entire college community to step forward with ideas, with energy and with inspiration that really set us on the right track.

With the help of faculty members, administration, students and our strategic consultancy partners, we have together achieved marvelous results:

Outreach. Our first goal was to reverse declining enrollments and a low yield rate. Of the five administrative positions that were eliminated as part of our restructuring plan, three professionals transitioned to the newly expanded and fortified office of St. Bridget’s Outreach.

The initiatives undertaken by this office are most impressive: presentations at more than 200 high schools in our state and in other parts of the Northeast; a highly successful online information campaign involving social media; the naming of five St. Bridget’s seniors as brand ambassadors with responsibility for outreach not just through local high schools but via clubs, sports teams, young enterprise projects and other affinity groupings; the establishment of a permanent representative of the college in the largest city in our state with responsibility for communication to high schools, interaction with media, assistance to college personnel and students when they visit the city, and serving as institutional ambassador.

Study abroad. Eighteen months ago we transferred our tiny study abroad program from London -- where it competed with nearly 80 other U.S. college and university programs -- to Sanya, on Hainan Island, China, a beautiful, small university city. We have partnered with Quingzhou University, and changed our model from exclusively classroom study to intensive Mandarin and Chinese culture classes combined with internships at local companies and organizations. This has proved to be a very popular option, and we have moved from barely breaking even with our own students in London to hosting young people from seven U.S. colleges in our new program, set to increase to 12 partner colleges in 2018.

In addition to being much more practically oriented than the London classroom and library experience, our Sanya program represents a significant source of income for St. Bridget’s and is on target to position us among the leaders in experiential education in China.

Teacher training. Working closely with our nonprofit consultancy and the St. Bridget’s Education Department, our education major has received a significant upgrade. Students now do a full major in an academic field, in addition to their education courses and teacher training. This has resulted in a significant strengthening of both the Education Department and the major. We have partnered with six local school districts to receive our students as practice teachers in their final year of study, and of the 41 St. Bridget’s seniors who did their practice teaching this year in our partner school districts, 35 have received job offers to start full time in August.

Part-time adult learners. We have established an office dedicated to adult learners from the surrounding community, including active-duty service personnel and spouses at nearby Fort George Patton. We have applied to be placed on the approved list of institutions under the Military Tuition Assistance Act, whereby the Department of Defense pays tuition and fees directly to the college, for approved courses.

Using the validation and accreditation criteria of Excelsior College, we have begun to accept credits for learning done outside the traditional, four-year residential college system. This will be especially important for our adult learners seeking a St. Bridget’s degree.

Online learning. St. Bridget’s has joined the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning, and we have incorporated Coursera content into two of our highest-enrollment courses, American History and The American System of Justice. Plans are underway to use Coursera in at least five more popular courses, which will produce significant savings in instruction costs in those courses, and free up faculty to provide a wider range of courses in their specialties, or for other teaching and administrative duties on campus.

Equally important, Professors Smith and Higgenbottom of the St. Bridget’s Biology Department are at work with colleagues from two other regional liberal arts college to produce a complete, online Fundamentals of Biology course aimed at nontraditional learners. This initiative, and its spin-offs, may bring significant revenue to our college.

Centralized purchasing. We have partnered with an agency whose sole job is purchasing for more than 100 college campuses across the Northeast. With their economies of scale, they are able to receive price discounts that we could never achieve on our own. As a result, academic departments are no longer responsible for their own purchasing, and everything from paper to toner to ballpoint pens is now uniform across campus. As soon as stocks are exhausted and need to be replaced, this will run to whiteboards, laser pointers and other durable goods.

Generating nontraditional revenue. We have sold All Saints Hall to a Singapore investment fund and leased it back at a stable rent for a period of 10 years with an option for a further 25 years. And we plan to sell two more college buildings within the next year. This initiative alone is programmed to bring in $2.5 million in the period through June 2018.

Outsourcing. We have contracted for many campus services, including landscaping and snow removal, so that we pay for these services only as we need them. We have sold all landscaping and snow removal equipment to the contracted firm, generating revenue in the five figures.

Enrollment upgrade. Working with our consultant partners, we have upgraded our enrollment software and streamlined the application process. Prospective students now automatically get individualized follow-up communication tailored to their academic interests and are put into contact with faculty in the areas where they might study. All this has meant a much more personalized application and acceptance process, and I am pleased to say that this past spring we admitted approximately the same number of students as we did two years ago, but the yield rose from 35 to 68 percent -- a significant increase in the number of students who have committed to St. Bridget’s for the coming fall.

Our streamlining has necessitated some difficult decisions that affected our community:

We have closed two academic programs that had been underenrolled for years -- including the interdisciplinary program in Northeast Studies, which competed directly with a similar program at the nearby state university. Three departments had their majors eliminated -- German, anthropology and creative writing -- and were merged into one service department providing 100- and 200-level courses to fulfill the college’s general education requirements.

Nine faculty positions were eliminated, and some of these faculty members found other academic jobs outside St. Bridget’s. For six who did not, the college contracted a professional counseling and coaching service specializing in transitions from the academic to the private sector.

Those are some of the initiatives we have undertaken in the past two years. But we are not stopping there. By June of 2018 I hope to announce more major changes, at least in the following areas:

We will be merging all foreign languages into a single department. At least two foreign language majors will be eliminated, and these languages will become service departments. They will take the initiative to partner with stronger departments to add language skills to business, education, psychology, criminal justice and possibly other majors. I emphasize that this initiative must be led from the departments themselves, not directed from my office.

The provost, the Academic Affairs Committee and I will begin to look at the research interests and production of faculty members, particularly in the humanities, with a view to encouraging these interests to become more closely aligned with teaching duties. We want research to result in more effective teachers, and research at St. Bridget’s should be aimed, first and foremost, at improving instruction on our campus, and these priorities will be taken into consideration in tenure and promotion decisions.

Research and publication will benefit faculty members at other institutions only insofar as their aims, like ours, are laser focused on the highest-quality teaching performance.

Under the guidance of our consultants, we are looking into joining an online library consortium, using the collection of Johns Hopkins University, one of the top-ranked institutions in the nation. This will reduce the need for new book purchases and eliminate subscriptions to very expensive scientific journals. For the time being, the current library will continue to operate as a basic study resource with a skeletal staff.

As I said earlier, we plan to sell and then lease back two more buildings on campus and are in the process of determining which those will be.

We are also determined to move the few St. Bridget’s sports teams still competing in Division II to Division III. Athletic scholarships will be eliminated, and we plan to apply the savings achieved to strengthen intramural and club sports, with a view to participation by a maximum numbers of students, at a wide range of skill levels.

At the suggestion of Professor Kim of the Computer Science Department, we have decided to change the configuration of several college office buildings to free up space. Although this is still in the planning stages, it is our vision that only heads of administrative departments and chairs of academic departments will have private offices. All other staff will share open spaces for university-related duties, and they will be assigned desks based upon need. Conference rooms will be available for professors’ office hours as well as other meetings, and these will be assigned on a full-semester or one-time basis. Following a trend in the IT and other industries, the college is contemplating a one-time subvention for faculty to set up home offices.

There will be more initiatives for the improvement and streamlining of our college, and I look forward to working with you on these, in due course. Meanwhile, I again thank the entire St. Bridget’s College community for its help, support and enthusiasm in our turnaround.

Aden Hayes is executive director of the Foundation for Practical Education.

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