Institutional administration

Case at University of Iowa highlights gender bias facing women in athletics

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Experts say jury award to former Iowa athletics official points to gender and sexual orientation bias issues present at many colleges and universities.

Author discusses new book on relationships -- including tensions over race and economics -- between universities and cities

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Author discusses new book about the relationship between higher education and the localities where institutions live.

Scholars and others strongly object to Berkeley's response to Justice Department accessibility order (essay)

In August 2016, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the University of California, Berkeley, asking it to implement procedures to make publicly available online audio and video content accessible to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf and blind, and blind. Rather than comply with this request, the university took the outrageous step of ending public access to those valuable resources, which include over 20,000 audio and video files, to avoid the costs of making the materials accessible.

We, the undersigned, strongly object to Berkeley’s choice to remove the content, and its public statement that disability access requirements forced the decision. That is not the case. Berkeley has for years systematically neglected to ensure the accessibility of its own content, despite the existence of internal guidelines advising how to do so. Further, the Justice Department letter left room for many alternatives short of such a drastic step. It was never the intent of the complainants to the department, nor of the disability community, to see the content taken down.

The public response to Berkeley’s announcement -- and to Inside Higher Ed’s reporting -- has been disheartening. While some commenters have acknowledged the need for accessible e-learning content, others have cast blame on those seeking access, accusing people with disabilities of putting their own interests first. Many have suggested that calls for access, such as captioning and audio description for video content, deprive the broader public of these resources. Many misrepresent this issue as one where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

In fact, people who depend on the accessibility of online course content constitute a significant portion of the population. There are between 36 and 48 million individuals in the United States with hearing loss, or about 15 percent of the population. An estimated 21 million individuals are blind or visually impaired. Altogether, about one in five adults in the United States has a functional disability.

The prevalence of disability increases significantly after the age of 65: more than one in three older adults have hearing loss, and nearly one in five have vision loss. Refusing to provide public access to online content negates the principle of lifelong learning, including for those who may eventually acquire a disability. Moreover, many individuals without hearing and vision disabilities benefit from accessible online course content.

Despite the large number of people who stand to gain from accessible content, changes to existing practice are rarely made voluntarily and typically occur through the enforcement of disability civil-rights laws. Those laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act and its 2008 amendment, were passed unanimously or with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

Once disability civil-rights laws are passed and implemented, the broader public stands to gain. As laid out by “The Curb Cut Effect,” the installation of curb cuts -- a direct consequence of the unanimously passed 1968 Architectural Barriers Act -- permitted diverse public access that has nothing to do with wheelchairs: baby strollers, shopping carts, bicycles, roller skates, skateboards, dollies and so forth. Today, curb cuts are so ubiquitous that we do not usually think about their existence anymore, yet we cannot imagine our country without them. In fact, Berkeley, often considered the birthplace of the civil-rights movement, led the way in curb cut implementation.

Captions are often referred to as digital curb cuts. As with physical curb cuts, widespread digital captioning originates from civil-rights legislation, including the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. About 30 percent of viewers use captions, according to Amazon, 80 percent of whom are not deaf or hard of hearing. A 2011 Australian survey revealed similar numbers, and a 2006 British study found that 7.5 million people in Great Britain had used captions to view television, including six million, or 80 percent, with no hearing loss. On Facebook, 85 percent of viewers consume video without sound, and captioning has increased user engagement. And an October 2016 study found that about 31 percent of hearing respondent college students “always” or “often” use closed captions when they are available, and another 18 percent sometimes use captions.

It was never the intention of the complainants or their allies to have course content removed from public access. With the recent mirroring of 20,000 public lectures, the net outcome is that we are back to square one with inaccessible content, now outside of the control of Berkeley. (We wish to emphasize that we have no quarrel with the decision to mirror the content, and affirm the right to freedom of speech in the strongest terms.)

The Department of Justice’s letter did not seek the removal of content, either. Indeed, Berkeley’s peer institutions have affirmed that they will continue to make their materials publicly available while striving to make them accessible as well.

The letter cannot have come as a surprise to Berkeley. In February 2013, seven months after the university announced its partnership in edX with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, faculty and staff members on Berkeley’s now-dismantled Academic Accommodations Board met to discuss how to “make sure students with disabilities have access” in “online education, including MOOCs.” There, board members warned that the university needed strong and immediate plans for disability access in its MOOCs.

In April 2014, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, on behalf of the complainants, contacted Berkeley and offered to engage in structured negotiation -- a successful method of dispute resolution that has been used with some of today’s biggest champions of captioned online video content. When the offer of structured negotiations went nowhere, the center filed with the Department of Justice in October 2014.

The Justice Department letter issued in August 2016 found that Berkeley had failed to enforce the accessibility of such content, resulting in few of their video or audio files being accessible. The department asked that the university strengthen its procedures to enforce accessibility guidelines. In response, rather than make the suggested changes, Berkeley publicly threatened to withdraw content and then went ahead with its March 2017 announcement to remove content.

We acknowledge that remedial accessibility work -- after-the-fact efforts to make content accessible -- can be costly. Such work requires not only the addition of captions and audio descriptions but also checking to ensure that documents and materials can be read by screen readers or accessed on a variety of devices. That is why it is so important that leadership enforce accessibility policies from the beginning. The ADA contains an undue-burden defense that protects public entities that cannot afford to make accessibility changes. But it is difficult to see how this applies here, since Berkeley was offered the option to make content accessible over a longer period of time to keep the cost manageable.

The fact that the online content is free is immaterial. Civil-rights justice and access are built on the premise that everyone, with or without a disability, should be able to participate. Online educational content has become a key ingredient of community participation, irrespective of whether it is free or paid. Moreover, Berkeley created the content at the outset -- which means taxpayers, including taxpayers with disabilities, partially funded it.

Barriers to accessing the educational materials of a respected university hinder community participation by people with disabilities. Most of the signatories to this article experience such barriers on a very personal level. The removal of digital access barriers is a crucial endeavor for a society that continues to revise its aspiration of justice for all. We urge the university to reconsider its decisions.

Christian Vogler is an associate professor and director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University.

Others Undersigned (Institutional affiliations are provided for identification purposes only):

Robert M. Anderson, professor emeritus of economics and mathematics, University of California, Berkeley
Teresa Burke, associate professor of philosophy, Gallaudet University
Patrick Boudreault, associate professor of interpretation and translation, Gallaudet
Claudia Center, adjunct professor of disability rights law at Berkeley Law School and senior staff attorney at National ACLU's Disability Rights Program
Mel Y. Chen, associate professor of gender and women's studies, Berkeley
Mel Chua
Geoffrey Clegg, faculty specialist I, Western Michigan University
Lawrence Cohen, professor of anthropology and South and Southeast Asian studies, Berkeley
Marianne Constable, professor of rhetoric, Berkeley
Adam Cureton, assistant professor of philosophy, University of Tennessee
Philip Kan Gotanda, professor of theater, dance and performance studies, Berkeley
Alastair Iles, associate professor of environmental policy and societal change, Berkeley
Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, associate professor of English, University of Delaware
Raja Kushalnagar, associate professor and director, Information Technology Program, Gallaudet
Celeste Langan, associate professor of English, Berkeley
Arlene Mayerson, adjunct professor of disability rights law, Berkeley Law School; directing attorney, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Karen Nakamura, Robert and Colleen Haas Distinguished Chair in Disability Studies and professor of anthropology, Berkeley
Stacy Nowak
Stephen A. Rosenbaum, John & Elizabeth Boalt Lecturer, visiting researcher scholar, Haas Institute, Berkeley
Leslie Salzinger, associate professor of gender and women’s studies, Berkeley
Susan Schweik, professor of English, Berkeley
Katherine Sherwood, professor emerita of art practice and disability studies, Berkeley
Charlotte Smith, faculty lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health
John F. Waldo, counsel to the Association of Late-Deafened Adults, Washington State Communication Access Project and Oregon Communication Access Project
Lisa Wymore, associate professor of theater, dance and performance studies, Berkeley

American Council of the Blind -- Eric Bridges, executive director
Association of Late-Deafened Adults -- Sharaine Roberts, president
Communication Service for the Deaf -- David Bahar, director of public policy and government affairs
Faculty Coalition for Disability Rights at the University of California, Berkeley -- Georgina Kleege, president
Hearing Loss Association of America -- Barbara Kelley, executive director

Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. -- Claude Stout, executive director

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How universities have gotten caught in a privatization trap (essay)

This country’s public universities face the Trump administration in a weakened condition. That is partly because they have suffered years of state funding cuts and still aren’t back to pre-2008 levels. But it’s also because they have long embraced a private-funding model that doesn’t work and whose weaknesses Trump and his people can exploit.

A painful example is the proposed 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, which Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has contended would not hurt research, as it would mostly focus on cutting back on overhead expenses to universities. An 18 percent budget slash sounds catastrophic -- until you remember that companies take these kinds of hits and survive. So do American families, where illness or job loss lead to cuts far greater than that.

The same goes for public universities: few have not had a cut on that scale sometime in the past 25 years, and still fewer have admitted that such losses hurt educational quality. Since universities survived the financial crisis with little damage -- that they have disclosed -- what would keep the citizenry awake at night about an 18 percent cut for medical research?

Research directors reply that it would be terrible indeed: National Science Foundation Director France Cordova, for example, has said the proposed cuts endanger the economy, since “half of our present GDP is due to investments in science and technology.” Researchers have noted that the current funding austerity already appears in the form of the declining average success rate for grant applications, which has been cut nearly in half since 2001, from 27 percent to 16 percent. Four in five applications go unfunded, with presumably valuable results to medical knowledge possibly lost.

Such arguments might work if voters thought science needed public funding to get to the public. But the unfortunate fact is that they have been taught otherwise for many years. Universities have taught politicians and the voters at large that they can and will deal with 5 percent, 10 percent or 20 percent public-funding cuts by finding alternative revenue streams, nearly all of which are private. Universities have asked people to marvel at their entrepreneurial prowess: they have raised tuition beyond inflation for decades, sought private donations, formed research partnerships, subsidized tech start-ups, outsourced room and board, built new buildings with promises of future lease revenue from private firms, and so on. Yes, cuts are a shame, universities seem to say, but we have liberated our inner Zuckerberg, and the public cuts haven’t hurt our excellence at all!

To take one example, Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California, said during the financial crisis that while they struggled to pay salaries in English and sociology, the “medical business” was doing just fine. Such statements told the world that the public-good educational core lost money while edu-business meant profits. This undermined the voters’ understanding of the special role that public funding plays in public-good activities like teaching and research, in which few of the benefits can be captured as profits by the institution. Adding to the confusion, university officials insisted that their public mission remained as healthy as ever.

Universities thus arrive at the Mar-a-Lago policy house with a confusing mixed message: we do the public good with private money. This confusion is now haunting NIH research. Since medicine is the icon of knowledge transformed into business, why shouldn’t we cut NIH tax support and make big pharma -- that is, its long-suffering customers -- pay for research? If your arthritis meds cost you $3,000 per month, why should you pay taxes on top for research?

In short, the public university’s first private-sector lesson is that private funding serves the public interest as well as public funding. And the logical response is, great, let the public interest be defined by what the private consumer is willing to pay.

The second post-public principle is that the value of knowledge is its market value and can be measured as a return on investment. Although most academics would deny this in theory, universities adhere to it as a theory in use. Higher education institutions have become reliant on return-on-investment arguments to recruit students, and the science establishment, though aware that fundamental science takes decades to pay off economically, constantly dangles large gross research revenues, patent royalties, start-up ventures and trillion-dollar markets in front of the policy makers who allocate funds. Universities and policy officials have taught the political world that science has value because it will generate a positive market return. ROI calculations are used to cut through complicated expert beliefs in scientific use value, intellectual merit and long-term benefits to society.

This view was taken to its logical conclusion for me one day in 2004, when a young engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, announced to our statewide science policy committee, “If a project can’t get corporate sponsorship, it’s probably not good enough to be funded by a federal agency.” That statement ignored the analytical distinction between a public agency funding research for public benefit and a business funding research for its own ROI. When he collapsed public into private, the engineer claimed that, for policy purposes, all good science will have a positive ROI and quality can be measured by pecuniary returns.

Again, few people would accept such claim as economic theory, and economists like Kenneth Arrow and Richard Nelson discredited it in the 1950s. But politics yokes false yet expedient claims to powerful interests to generate practices that act as though intellectual value can be measured as market value. The prestige of market forces, working with misinformation from universities, has kept generations of political and business leaders from inquiring further. Hence, most nonacademics assume that if a university laboratory is doing good science then it is making money, and plenty of it.

The Achilles’ Heel

Enter HHS Secretary Price, who looked at medical research and asked “whether indeed we can get a larger return for the American taxpayer.” That is an entirely appropriate question within our private-sector paradigm of public knowledge, since that treats public funding like private funding and judges it by pecuniary returns.

Price went straight for the Achilles’ heel of the whole operation: “I was struck by one thing at NIH,” he said, “and that is that about 30 percent of the grant money that goes out is used for indirect expenses, which as you know means that that money goes for something other than the research that’s being done.”

On the theory that universities are grossing huge research revenues, this 30 percent spending on peripherals was like bonus pay. All the proposed cuts would mean, then, is that NIH will reduce university profits. Federal dollars will go farther, the taxpayer saves, and universities just have less NIH money to spend on their favorite stuff.

Fine, except for one thing: universities lose money on IDC payments, which don't cover costs. And universities, instead of bragging that their research losses are a donation to the welfare of humanity, have covered them up for decades.

Indirect costs are infrastructure, not gravy that gets spread around. They cover the facilities and administration that support the specific research, which could not take place without the general staff, buildings, utilities and everything else that houses the research. All this costs more than any collection of research sponsors want to pay, even over many years. So universities lose money on indirect costs paid by NIH and every other sponsor under the sun.

Universities on average pay over 20 cents of their own institutional funds to support every dollar of research. A Nature study confirmed a large gap between calculated need and actual reimbursements: “The average negotiated rate is 53 percent, and the average reimbursed rate is 34 percent” -- a difference of nearly 20 points. Two hundred million dollars of research expenditures at a good-size research university costs that university $40 million of its own money, which it mostly gets from student tuition and state funds.

Even the most successful, best-compensated universities in the country have some version of this problem. “We lose money on every piece of research that we do,” comments Maria Zuber, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has negotiated an IDC rate of 56 percent. Were MIT to keep grossing around $500 million in federal grant income, and all federal agencies came to imitate the Price practice of zero IDC funding, MIT would need to come up with an additional $150 million of its own money (to replace the 30 percent average of cut IDC funds) -- just to keep losing what it already loses on federal research.

Price’s policy would be a financial disaster for research universities: they would need to cut the amount of research that they can support, which would wreak havoc on the production of knowledge and on scientific personnel. It would deepen the existing fear that a generation of scientists is already imperiled by inadequate funding. It would force universities to take even more money from students and from faculty in disciplines without large extramural grants. Parts of an already unstable research ecosystem could collapse.

Cutting Our Losses

Although we can and must condemn Price’s cynical, destructive proposal, we need to face the fact that universities have set themselves up. They have treated research costs as a trade secret: neither faculty members, nor well-intentioned legislators, nor the public know that science loses money for universities, or how much. The Nature study got its data only through Freedom of Information Act requests. I had the same experience while doing my own research, which is that public universities treat actual reimbursement rates and IDC spending in the same way that private businesses do -- as proprietary.

Why do universities not disclose financial information that would improve their case for stable or even increased funding? Custom and fear of backlash play their roles. But the decisive factor is the private-sector framework. University officials now treat research as a business activity that is managed as though it were commercially sensitive and should run in the black. They do not want to disclose their large and routine outlays to cover shortfalls on that research, since in a private-sector model such losses signal failure. In addition, the biggest percentage losses come from private foundations and corporate partners that often bring the most prestige. Universities are caught in a privatization trap that they built themselves, and that will be difficult to take apart.

But take it apart they must, and the good news is that research losses can be cut. A fuller program can be found in my new book, The Great Mistake, but the elements can be summarized.

First, universities must go beyond current reporting categories to analyze and disclose how they use indirect cost funds. That disclosure will fan suspicion and resentment into anger and recrimination. But that is normal when issues that have been removed from the political life of a community are reinstated, and various grievances will need to be worked through. Such a move will tax the political skills of university administrations, but until disclosure and discussion occur, most people -- from Tom Price to academic scientists -- will continue to assume that much IDC feathers nests far from the laboratory and can be cut.

Second, universities must admit that the old deal on research funding was ended by state cuts, and then ask for a new deal. They must ask for full coverage of indirect costs. That means going in the opposite direction of Secretary Price and demanding that sponsors stop expecting universities to subsidize them with less money than they used to have that they must increasingly extract from undergraduates. Universities need to start making the full ask to partners, as Price is now doing to them.

Most important, universities need to embrace the public-good definition of research and higher education that turns private losses into public gains. Universities lose money on research in order to benefit the entire society. Since the whole state gains from a great medical center and museum and sociology department’s expertise on racial stratification, the whole state is legitimately asked to pay for it through taxes.

Universities have tried the soft privatization of revenues. That has failed to stabilize university finances and miseducated people about the nonmarket and social value of the university. Universities have also squandered the philosophical and social foundation of their public benefits and lost much general goodwill. But it is not too late to get it back -- starting with the re-education of Tom Price.

Christopher Newfield teaches literature and American studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Advice for deciding when to participate in an executive job search (essay)

When should you say yes and when should you say no? Judith S. White offers advice.

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The challenges wheelchair users face when visiting colleges (essay)

When I applied to college, I had used a wheelchair  --  the result of a spinal cord injury that paralyzed me from the chest down  --  for a little over half a year. I believed that every higher education institution was wheelchair accessible (after all, I was certainly not the first wheelchair user to go to college), and so I applied to colleges as if I were able-bodied. This, I quickly found out, was a mistake. I applied to eight institutions but only had the time and resources to visit two, one of which was a large research university.

The visit was a disaster. Multiple entrances to the main campus included staircases, and I had to circle around the campus before I found a flat entrance. Once I made it to the main campus, I wheeled over an unstable wooden plank placed over a short staircase. This, a tour guide explained, was a ramp.

I needed to use an elevator to get to another part of the campus, which was fine, except that the elevator was locked and campus security had the key. I pressed a button calling for security that was located by the elevator and waited about 15 minutes before a security guard who was doing his rounds showed up. He said the button I had been pressing was broken.

Later during that visit, I noticed an elevator to get into one of the libraries, but it was too small for my wheelchair. As if I didn’t have enough warning signs, I watched a student use his power chair across a section of cobblestones on the campus. As his chair bounced and jostled along the dangerously uneven surface, I wondered if I could withdraw my application and get a refund on the application fee. (You can’t.)

“How do wheelchair-using students get around?” I asked a tour guide.

He shrugged. “They manage.” I suppose I could’ve managed, too, for four years. But I had no guarantee that the situation wouldn’t get worse  --  like at Boston College, which, in part because of renovations, has faced federal and state investigations for possible violations of accessibility laws.

Besides, the lack of concern for my needs made me feel unwelcome. Physical space and a well-functioning infrastructure on a campus cannot be overlooked, especially when one has a disability. What better way to tell a wheelchair user that they don’t belong at a college or university than by strewing the campus with stairs, broken help buttons and pitiful excuses for ramps?

Although institutions of higher education are legally required to accommodate students with disabilities, in practice much of the responsibility for finding proper accommodations falls on the students themselves. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation recommends that college applicants who are living with paralysis “visit the campus beforehand whenever possible, to determine if all of your needs and concerns can be addressed” and provides a number of questions that wheelchair-using students should ask administrators to ensure that they can practically attend a particular institution. For example, how accessible is the campus, and what are the rules with regard to relocating courses in inaccessible buildings? While this advice is useful, it also presupposes that not all colleges and universities can provide sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities.

College administrations can get away with shirking their responsibilities because the legal requirements are so vaguely worded. The Americans With Disabilities Act has been around for over 25 years, and one would think that this law would prevent any roadblocks that students with disabilities face in their quest for higher education. But the legal language of the ADA requires “reasonable accommodations,” a phrase that is very much open to interpretation.

The disability services office at the second institution I visited assured me that a wheelchair-accessible dorm room was available, and they were more than happy to show me a room. But the room was small and could not have fit my physical therapy equipment (which I use regularly to prevent blood clots, muscle atrophy and pressure sores  --  some of which could result in hospitalization). It was also in a building at the bottom of a steep hill. Disability services said that this was because there was also a food court at the bottom of the hill  --  but the main library, classroom buildings and another food court were at the top. To the administration, this room, with its accessible bathroom and location within an accessible building that was near food, was a reasonable accommodation. But for a wheelchair-using student who also has to get to the library and to class, it was anything but.

Two unsuccessful campus visits later, it was obvious that I would have to vet both campuses and disability services offices before I committed to attend a college or university. If campus disability services and I disagreed on what constituted a reasonable accommodation before enrollment, then that did not bode well for the following four years.

Further, I needed to know that the disability services office was going to work with other administrative bodies and the faculty. In 2014, Inside Higher Ed reported that ignorance among faculty and staff members at certain colleges and universities made it difficult for students with disabilities to receive accommodations. Moreover, some students with invisible disabilities (like bipolar disorder) anticipated so much resistance that they were uncomfortable even disclosing that they needed assistance.

When students receive little administrative help, they must advocate for themselves in order to make college achievable. A Rutgers University study from 2012 found that students with disabilities are successful in college in large part due to self-advocating, mentoring and perseverance. As the tour guide at the large research university said, “They manage”  --  on their own.

Yet many new college students have just barely reached legal adulthood, and self-advocacy is as new to some of them as college life is to any freshman. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, students do not need to advocate for their needs in a K-12 setting because schools must serve their educational needs. In college, students suddenly need to manage their living arrangements as well as their educational needs, and having to fight for accommodation adds extra complication to an already difficult adjustment. College also introduces new bureaucracies, and, often, larger staffs and faculties, which can be overwhelming for any student, regardless of ability.

Down With Barriers

I took the Reeve Foundation’s advice seriously and sought out a college that could accommodate my disability. After I heard from the institutions that accepted me, I made a rule for myself: if I couldn’t find the disability services website on an institution’s page within two minutes, it was probably a bad fit. Whenever I could, I checked campus accessibility maps, shuttle schedules and other transportation services -- and even topographic gradients. (It turns out that one of my potential colleges was located on a hill, so there was another application fee I wasn’t getting back.) I reached out to disability services offices to get their perspective on what constituted a reasonable accommodation, and I eventually found a fit.

The thing that boggles my mind most about the experience is that finding a college was so difficult, even though all I needed was basic wheelchair access and a room large enough for my physical therapy equipment. What if my disability had more specialized requirements? What if my disability was invisible, or what if I was concerned about disclosing my disability? What would I have done, and how would I have decided on a college?

The mainstream attitude toward applying to college dictates that students with disabilities are responsible for finding an institution that accommodates them. Currently, students with disabilities must visit every college campus they’re seriously considering  --  a costly endeavor  --  and although some may have never had to advocate for themselves before, they must navigate university bureaucracies and vet disability services offices to ensure a good fit. Even if the disability services office is on top of its game, students may still encounter issues with a lack of services or general ignorance of their condition among faculty members and others.

This reality is completely unacceptable. Colleges and universities should be responsible for providing and improving existing accommodations. They need to get better at this, and they need to get better soon, because a growing number of students with disabilities are enrolling in institutions of higher education.

My wheelchair should never have been a barrier to higher education. Nobody’s should. If a student has been accepted to a college, their ability to attend should never be in question. It’s time to take the burden off students with disabilities in the application process and ensure that all college and universities can accommodate their needs.

Valerie Piro is an Ed.M. student in higher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This article originally appeared on The Establishment, a multimedia site run and funded by women.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Administrative Management Institute

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Study finds connection between alumni legislators and public higher ed funding

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Each additional legislator who has attended public college in a state is worth about $3.5 million in state funding for higher ed, study says.

Colleges should focus on keeping students in college, not free textbooks (essay)

As college instructors begin to think about what materials to assign in their fall classes, we can expect to see renewed interest in the debate over the cost of college textbooks. For example, not too long ago the Financial Times published a piece proclaiming that open educational resources -- or OERs -- would set textbooks “free.” Soon after, student public interest research groups published a report that similarly painted OERs as education's savior in the face of rising costs.

As a professor of psychological and brain sciences who has spent much of his career creating material designed to maximize learning and student success, I want nothing more than to see my students succeed. Yet I can’t help but feel that conversations about open educational resources severely miss the mark. At best, proponents of OERs overstate their potential; at worst, they draw our attention -- and valuable resources -- away from far more pressing challenges facing higher education today.

The Real Crisis in Higher Education

The rising cost of college is undoubtedly a major concern, and one that virtually every student feels in one way or another. It needs to be addressed. But looking at the system as a whole, the problems that high costs create simply do not compare to the true crisis in higher education: our dismal graduation rates.

Based on national statistics, of the students who enter four-year colleges this fall, we can expect that only about three-fifths will have graduated six years from now. For those who enter two-year schools, less than a third will have graduated in three years. Frankly, that’s appalling.

Moreover, as concerning as student debt may be for students who graduate, it poses a far greater threat to the students who do not graduate. The College Board estimates that, over the course of a lifetime, workers who graduate from college will earn about 66 percent more than their counterparts who do not graduate from college. In a very real sense, increasing graduation rates would significantly ease the financial burden associated with college.

The Hidden Cost of Free Resources

Given the investment that a college education represents, students simply must have access to the tools that will most effectively help them succeed. Unfortunately, most open educational resources fall short.

In large part, that’s because they are usually little more than traditional textbooks, distributed digitally. They’re new versions of the same kinds of materials that have been around for decades, even as student expectations have changed and graduation rates have plummeted. Worse, they’re often poorly curated, and revisions and updates are sporadic at best.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the reality is that these “new” open resources are generally among the least innovative solutions available today, and they ultimately do little more than further entrench an ineffective status quo.

Now, compare that with today’s latest paid digital learning tools that are based on technological advances and discoveries from learning scientists that have emerged in the last decade. Such tools are not textbooks in the traditional sense -- they’re dynamic, adaptive learning systems, and they facilitate highly impactful learning experiences in a way that no traditional textbook could. They deliver deeply personalized lessons for students, giving continuous feedback and support, all while providing educators with insights that allow us to reach our students more effectively.

I for one can tell you that the availability of these solutions offers a better educational experience for students. In my introductory psychology courses, for example, rather than assigning a traditional (linear) textbook, I can now assign an adaptive online version that customizes the way it presents content for each student, based on that student’s individual needs. The tool continually poses questions to assess each student’s mastery of material, and then provides a unique path through the material, not only targeting each student’s strengths and weaknesses but ensuring that students review and reinforce what they’ve learned at optimal intervals. At the same time, it can help to identify particular elements of the material that students might be having trouble with, allowing the opportunity to fine-tune lectures in a way that no traditional textbook ever could.

Consequently, it is misguided to assume that the difference between open educational resources and paid resources is merely one of cost (although it’s worth mentioning that the solution I describe above comes at a cost significantly lower than that of the traditional hardcover text). The reality is that there are simply no open resources that are as flexible, reliable or impactful as the newest generation of education resources. My experience may be anecdotal, but carefully conducted research supports it: studies have repeatedly shown that students who use digitally personalized learning tools are more likely to do better in class, to receive better grades and to avoid dropping out.

The prospect of free textbooks is obviously appealing, both to students and to educators interested in reducing the overall cost of higher education. But it doesn’t make any sense to allow cost to be our primary concern in assessing resources that amount to just a fraction of students’ total expenditures -- especially when, meanwhile, those same resources can play an outsize role in determining whether students pass a course, graduate from college or are prepared for future employment.

Educators certainly should have the flexibility to use whichever tools best suit their needs, and open resources do have a place in our education system. But we do ourselves and our students a disservice if we suggest that they should replace paid resources outright. Our students can’t afford it.

Robert S. Feldman is deputy chancellor and professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. He also serves as chair of the McGraw-Hill Education Learning Science Research Advisory Council. (Note: This bio has been updated to note the author's connection to a publisher.)

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