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Welcome to the Syllabus, a guide that provides insight into what’s happening in higher education.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
7-1 that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th
Circuit applied the wrong legal standard when analyzing and affirming the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin. The case involved a white student, Abigail Fisher, who claimed that she was denied enrollment to the University due to race-conscious admissions. Ms. Fisher’s lawyers argued that she would have been admitted to the University had the program not existed, and that the program’s selection of students based on race violates the 14th Amendment’s
equal protection clause. Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion stated that the lower court failed to apply “strict scrutiny” review to the case, as required in cases involving affirmative action in education. Under strict scrutiny, a school must show that its race-based admissions process meets a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Justice Kennedy went on to state that the court could not simply accept the school’s assertion that its race-based admission process was legal without conducting its own analysis regarding how the process works in practice. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—in the only dissenting opinion—stated, “The University of Texas considers race only as a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor.”
Inside Higher Education
It has long been agreed by higher-education experts that the federal methodology for measuring completion rates is flawed. According to Scott Jaschik, “To date… no alternative system for measuring graduation rates has gained widespread currency in discussing the performance of colleges.” That may change with the news that six higher-education associations, which represent both two-year and four-year private and public institutions, endorsed the Student Achievement Measure
(SAM). Under current federal methodology, students are analyzed based on whether first-time, full-time students have obtained a bachelor’s degree after six years or an associate degree after three years. Critics of this system point out that this methodology is only beneficial to residential colleges that cater to traditional-age college students. This methodology fails to measure non-traditional, part-time students who make up a significant portion of enrollments. SAM, unlike the federal methodology, monitors all types of statuses of a student such as enrolled, graduated, transferred, transferred and graduated, transferred and enrolled, and unknown. It will also measure time-to-degree in a more informative way than the federal “150 percent of enrollment.”
The Washington Post
Over the last year, the U.S. Department of Education tightened the credit standards for the Parent PLUS loans program. This has contributed to a decline in student enrollment at some institutions, like historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The Parent PLUS program gives eligible parents access to federal loans with a fixed interest rate. Often these loans are taken on after a student has borrowed the maximum amount in federal Stafford and Perkins loans. Parents can borrow the full cost of attendance, including living expenses, to assist their child with college costs. Unfortunately, the loan carries a 7.9 percent interest rate with a four percent origination fee, compared to undergraduate student loan interest rates of 3.4 to 6.8 percent.
Although the Education Department’s changes to credit criteria for PLUS loans affects all higher-education institutions, parent loans at HBCUs have dropped 36 percent compared to the national average of 11 percent. To encourage student enrollment and persistence, HBCUs searched for alternative financing for students and/or slashed their budgets. While the U.S. Department of Education
admits, “the top officials did not review the decision before it was implemented,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged he is concerned that parents are taking on a debt that they are unable to repay. New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey, discussed this issue in this month’s Chronicle of Higher Education article titled, The Federal Parent Rip-Off Loan
and stated, “having created a new class of student debtors, higher education is now reaching back in time to indenture the preceding generation.”
Higher Ed Watch readers, what do you think about the recent PLUS policy change?