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College Affordability

It’s Official! US Department of Education Approves First College to Ditch the Credit Hour

April 18, 2013
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For more than 100 years, the time-based credit hour has been the currency of higher education. Originally created to calculate eligibility for Andrew Carnegie’s free faculty pension system, the credit hour evolved to become much more. Entire systems have been built around and upon the time-based credit hour, including the economic lifeblood of many colleges and universities—federal financial aid. But today, the U.S. Department of Education approved Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) College for America (CfA) to be the first program in the country to receive federal financial aid based on “direct assessment” of student learning, rather than the credit hour. This move from the federal government could signal a new era for higher education—one in which we value and pay for learning rather than time.

Southern New Hampshire University, a small, private liberal arts institution, is familiar with pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Over a decade ago, it added a three-year competency-based bachelor’s degree to its regular course offerings. Rather than squeeze four years of “time” into three years through summer and weekend classes, the faculty identified the core competencies students should have upon graduation and then wove those competencies into every course and assignment. By looking at the program holistically, rather than just as a combination of courses, the school was able to eliminate redundancies in the curriculum and focus on what students were expected to learn and do.

The Academic Graveyard Shift: The Costs of Declining Teaching Loads

March 29, 2013
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A new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Education Sector, “Selling Students Short: Declining Teaching Loads at Colleges and Universities,” assigns tenure-line university faculty a remarkable amount of blame for the high price of college. As the report states, bemoaning faculty labor costs is common practice among critics of the academy, who frequently assume the single largest university budget category (usually faculty compensation) holds the most fat. To his credit, author Andrew Gillen moves beyond that simplistic assumption and seeks evidence of ineffective faculty spending. In doing so, he tells a compelling and concerning narrative about university products and faculty priorities: the instructional mission of American higher education is being short-changed, particularly for students and taxpayers. Unfortunately, the report’s conclusions ultimately overreach and overshadow its main value—generating greater policy discussion around the costs and products associated with faculty work.

Gillen uses federal data to demonstrate reductions in tenured and tenure-track (TT) teaching loads across institution types, between academic years 1987-1988 and 2003-2004. He provides a cohesive synthesis of factors widely thought to contribute to this outcome, with some emphasis on Massy and Zemsky’s concept of “the academic ratchet.” The academic ratchet explains that as faculty seek reputational prestige and career mobility through increased attention to their research responsibilities, they must, and readily do, decrease attention to instruction and other responsibilities. The report neglects to mention the other half of this framework, (“the administrative lattice”), which explains how administrators enable faculty to restructure their work: they expand their ranks, also at added cost. Data show administrative growth, both in terms of expenditure and added employees, has been prodigious in recent years.

New Podcast: How to Sidestep the Double-Whammy

March 28, 2013
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As I mentioned in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, families are facing a double-whammy to college affordability: costs are up and savings are down. The good news? As Rachel Fishman with the Education Policy Program and I discuss, there are a lot of things that the federal and state governments, educational institutions, and families can do to maintain access to higher education. To have a listen, click below.

March Madness: Do Colleges Cut Down the Net on Net Price?

March 27, 2013

This post originally appeared on the New America Foundation's In the Tank blog.

College basketball fans across the country bemoaned ruined brackets as they watched Harvard unseat the University of New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA March Madness tournament.  Of all the teams in this year’s bracket, Harvard graduates the highest percentage of its student body, and we've been thinking about how the other tournament schools stack up on this front, as well as on how they treat their lower-income students. Some of the traditional basketball powerhouses aren’t too shabby. Duke University, for instance, graduates 94 percent of its student body, and also does well by its low-income students, charging them relatively little to enroll.

March Madness: Do Colleges Cut Down the Net on Net Price?

March 27, 2013

This post originally appeared on the New America Foundation's In the Tank blog.

College basketball fans across the country bemoaned ruined brackets as they watched Harvard unseat the University of New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA March Madness tournament.  Of all the teams in this year’s bracket, Harvard graduates the highest percentage of its student body, and we've been thinking about how the other tournament schools stack up on this front, as well as on how they treat their lower-income students. Some of the traditional basketball powerhouses aren’t too shabby. Duke University, for instance, graduates 94 percent of its student body, and also does well by its low-income students, charging them relatively little to enroll.

Only 15 percent of Harvard’s 2010 enrolled students were from families with sufficiently low incomes to receive federal Pell Grants. And while Harvard charged the lowest-income students (those from families earning less than $30,000 a year) only a nominal amount of $423, few other schools matched up. Bucknell University, already knocked out of the tournament, charged more than $16,000 to those students – at least half the family income.

Meanwhile, a quarter of students enrolled at the University of Arizona – triumphant victors over Harvard – receive Pell Grants. And a third of La Salle University students are Pell Grant recipients. Michigan, which plays Kansas this week, enrolled fewer Pell students (15 percent), but charges a net price of only about $5,000.

Our NCAA brackets would certainly look different if we judged schools by the way they help low-income students afford their tuitions, rather than by athletic prowess. Check out the data on this page – and many more data points from the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project — to see a new side of your Final Four.

Take a look at how NCAA March Madness schools compare below. Click the table headers to sort ascending or descending on that particular column.

Department of Education Letter Could Put Cracks in the Credit Hour

March 19, 2013
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The U.S. Department of Education took a critical step forward today in moving towards a more flexible and innovative financial aid system—one that privileges (and pays for) learning, rather than time. In a letter released this morning, the Education Department let the world know not only that schools can award federal financial aid based on competency rather than seat time, but that the Department wants them to do so.

Up until now, the entire multi-billion dollar federal aid system has run on the credit hour. And while credit hours are useful for administrative functions like scheduling classes and determining faculty workloads, they are not so useful for measuring learning. (See our report Cracking the Credit Hour for more on the curious birth and harmful legacy of this time-based unit).

This shift in the Department’s stance has been seven years in the making. In 2005, Congress created an alternative path allowing federal financial aid to be awarded to a program that “in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as the measure of student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning (emphasis added).” While Congress didn’t give much detail about what direct assessment would look like, the general idea was that federal financial aid could be awarded based on the amount of learning a student had achieved, rather than the amount of time she had spent in class. Congress created this provision in large part to help an innovative, growing, and politically-connected institution, Western Governor’s University (WGU), receive federal financial aid.

California's Groundbreaking State Online Higher Education Plan

March 12, 2013

California is currently home to two of the most important things happening in higher education, one good, one bad. The good thing is the rapid advancement of cheap and free online courses offered by companies like Udacity and Coursera. The bad thing is the catastrophic failure of California lawmakers to provide enough money to support basic access to foundational courses at community colleges. Tomorrow, California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg will announce a plan that essentially tries to use the one to fix the other. This groundbreaking initiative has broad implications for the nature, financing, and regulation of higher learning.

As of today nearly half a million students are on waiting lists for basic courses in California’s public higher education system, increasing the cost and duration of college and reducing the number of students who ultimately earn degrees. This is a human tragedy and a policy failure on a massive scale. Under the plan, waitlisted students would be able to take online classes that have been approved by California’s Open Education Resources Council, a faculty-led body that was created by recent Steinberg-sponsored legislation creating free open textbooks. ACE certification would be a point in course's favor. Students would have to take in-person proctored exams to pass the courses. Public colleges and universities in California would be required to accept those courses for credit.

Double Whammy to College Affordability: New Reports Show College Costs Up but College Savings Down

March 8, 2013
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Fresh off the presses are two reports highlighting the dismal state of college affordability: the first was released Wednesday by the State Higher Education Executive Officer's Association showing that college costs rose 8.3 percent last year and the second from Sallie Mae released last Tuesday (slightly less fresh) showing that less families are savings for college and thos

Preserving Need-Blind Admissions Comes at a Price at Grinnell

February 28, 2013

When it comes to private colleges enrolling and supporting low-income students, Grinnell College has been one of the best. Nearly a quarter of its students receive Pell Grants, and the lowest-income students have to take on only a relatively small amount of debt to receive a top-notch liberal arts education.

That’s why it is so disheartening to hear that Grinnell plans to become more aggressive in using so-called “merit” aid for the explicit purpose of recruiting wealthy students. According to college’s president Raynard Kington, this is the price Grinnell will have to pay for maintaining its need-blind admissions policy for the next two years.

Last year, Grinnell’s board raised alarms on campus when it announced that it was considering abandoning its costly policy of admitting students regardless of their financial need. But after months of heated discussions among students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, the board relented and agreed to allow the practice to continue for another couple of years. In return, however, the school must “find a way to curb growth in its discount rate (the percentage of sticker price provided by the college in aid, on average) and to reduce the share of its operating budget paid by the endowment,” according to Inside Higher Ed. They need to, in other words, bring in more students who can pay full freight.

The Impact of the New Pell Grant Restrictions on Community Colleges: A Three State Study of Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi

February 27, 2013

A new study by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama finds that enrollment at community colleges in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi declined significantly in the fall of 2012 due to recent changes made to Pell eligibility. The report’s authors argue the eligibility changes caused thousands of students to lose Pell grants and they predict many more thousands will lose their Pell grant funding in the coming year. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education and survey results from financial aid administers at all 63 of Alabama’s, Arkansas’ and Mississippi’s community colleges, the report argues that students in these three states are particularly sensitive to changes in  Pell eligibility criteria and that reductions in Pell aid as a result of such eligibility changes adversely affect students’ academic futures.

Among the report’s findings:

  • It is estimated that two out of every three full-time students receive Pell grants in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, indicating their importance to higher education access for students in the Deep South.
  • Declining community college enrollment, the authors argue, is a direct effect of the 2012 changes to Pell eligibility which included (1) reducing the maximum time a student is Pell-eligible from 18 total semesters of full-time enrollment to 12 total semesters; (2) lowering the income threshold for receiving an automatic zero expected family contribution from $32,000 to $23,000; and (3) restricting students without a high school diploma or GED from receiving a Pell grant.
    • These changes were enacted to address rapidly rising costs associated with the Pell program resulting from more generous eligibility criteria in prior federal higher education legislation and a substantial increase in the number of Pell applicants and recipients during the recession.
  • Enrollment declined at more than 75% of two-year colleges in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi in the fall of 2012.
  • Over 5,000 students in these three states lost their Pell grants in the fall of 2012 and nearly 17,000 are estimated to lose their Pell grant in 2013.
  • Before these changes in Pell eligibility, community colleges in the Deep South saw an across-the-board 6% rise in enrollment from 2008-2011 due an increase in the number of students who qualified for a Pell grant.
  • Survey results from financial aid administrators at all 63 community colleges in the Deep South indicate:
    • Most administrators favor lowering the maximum Pell award if it would mean fewer student eligibility restrictions and regulations on how it can be used.
    • A large majority view the now-defunct year-round Pell grant program as an effective tool to increase student completion at their institutions.
    • Overall, administrators of financial aid would like to see a phased-in implementation of the new time limits for Pell eligibility to mitigate the negative impact on students. 
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