Chart of the Day: The REAL Pell Grant Issue

Saturday, April 28, 2012
Thanks to Nate Johnson for a fantastic new chart that clearly illustrates who's to blame for the incredible growth in Pell Grant expenditures: private for-profit higher education. Switch the settings from "all institutions" to "for profits" and watch the red line (for-profits) pull dramatically away from the grey (national average).  Now Nate, please do this for federal student loans!

Elites to 99%: Resistance is Futile

Monday, April 23, 2012
Today my Twitter feed brought a swan song for public higher education, sung by a chorus of elites.  It was accompanied in harmony by some   public higher education leaders who are surrendering and turning in their badges.

A few highlights:

  • The co-founder and former chief executive officer of CarMax told a crowd attending the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities 2012 National Conference on Trusteeship that public universities should strive for major tuition increases. Reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Poor kids borrow money so that the rich kids can get a tuition discount," said Mr. Auston Ligon, now a member of the Board of Visitors at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. "Quit subsidizing people like my kids."   
  • Gordon Gee of The Ohio State (and buddy of Biddy Martin) is promoting a forthcoming book from Stanford University Press called "Public No More."  This little ditty plays a familiar tune, sung by two business school types. Again we are told, the current business model of higher education is broken (duh) and public higher ed's "longstanding dependence on state unsustainable...recent cuts are permanent...public universities either recognize this...or face decline....attempts to block competitive forces by resistance and delaying actions are self-defeating."  Apparently these dudes never heard of the need to present and evaluate without pre-judgement alternative models in policy prescriptions.
  • According to Inside Higher Ed, some educators are full-on gung-ho about privatization and not even experiencing "angst" about it (sidenote to IHE--nice framing, making having reservations sound like neuroses). The chancellor of Maricopa Community College, a man in charge of guiding the futures of thousands of black and brown students, apparently has an oracle.  Rufus Glasper tells us "We have no choice. The state funds are gone forever."  There's no point in anything but his kind of "realism," and his so-called solution is a private for-profit model. 
Just a few questions. Why is the CarMax guy being invited to talk with AGBCU?  What's his expertise-- oh right, car sales. Discounting.  Clearly buying college is like buying a car--all about the transaction. And we all know that poor people with their complete information totally understand how discounting works, that's why high tuition-high aid is so successful...  Say it with me now: puhleese.

Second, when did smart people all start singing in unison about simplistic, singular solutions to complex problems?  Did they all attend a special dinner party together where primers were distributed, and the private monetary incentives for making the education "public no more" were explained?  Sure seems like it.  Because they are talking to highly educated people in a way that is utterly pedantic-- there is one solution and one solution only -- pass the buck onto the "consumer"? Can you imagine if instead they said, "Hey 5th graders, pay your own way through elementary school?" 

Third, how much longer are you people (yes you, our readers) going to take this?  For-profit leaders clearly worked this out quite well ages ago, using their massive profits paid for with your federal tax dollars to lobby legislators and university leaders into believing the future lies in private, for-profit education.  They're doing it from up high in the skyscrapers around the world, while many higher ed leaders are out there wittingly and unwittingly carrying their water and doing their bidding.  We mere "academics" and "students" who won't admit that really we are "obstacles" and "consumers" are simply in the way.


Where have we heard that before? 

On social media

Friday, April 20, 2012
Colleagues at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting asked me to speak informally at a Sunday morning workshop on the topic of social media. I covered a range of topics, including what it's like to write for the Education Optimists.  In case you're wondering what it's felt like "behind the scenes" here are the videos.

Stop Subsidizing the Upper Middle-Class

Thursday, April 19, 2012
Today Stephen Burd from Education Sector released a provocative new report that fully supports my contention (and that many others including Sandy Baum, Mike McPherson, Rick Kahlenberg) that we should stop subsidizing the upper middle-class with tax credits for college, and start focusing federal financial aid on those who need it most: Pell recipients.

Every time I've publicly discussed this idea I've been attacked as not caring about the middle-class.  This is a red herring-- suggesting that scarce dollars should be targeted to those who most need and will most benefit from them is simply good policy making. It's not about "who cares about whom."  As I pointed out following Obama's latest speech in Michigan, tax credits are demonstrably ineffective at their goals.  Burd calls a spade a spade when he adds, "Notably, while policymakers continue to tout the tuition tax breaks as a middle-class benefit, the introduction of the AOTC led to significant reductions in the share of the overall benefits going to families making between $25,000 and $75,000."

As a result, of the $55 billion distributed in college tax credits between 2010-2014, most will go to families earning over $100,000.  Tax credits don't make or break their children's decisions about attending or college, and are unlikely to even affect where they attend or how long they take to finish.  Instead they operate as a sort of "reward" to the family for having a college-bound child, and a little "apology" for the high costs. Of course these are nice things for the government to do for families, but since they don't change student outcomes, they simply aren't necessary.  Well, mostly.  The one caveat is that they may incur some political support for aid programs generally, a benefit that accrues to all recipients.  But that's very hard to demonstrate, and probably isn't worth their high cost.

Let's hope that Congress is listening, and stops attacking the Pell program as inflated and unbearable. What's clearly not needed are these tax credits.  Enough already.

Derek Bok & the Path to Changing Faculty Teaching Practices

Sunday, April 15, 2012
Last night Liam and I attended a talk by Derek Bok, Harvard's president emeritus, hosted by the Spencer Foundation at the meetings of the American Educational Research Association in Vancouver.  Due to a lack of Wifi and data service, I couldn't tweet the speech, which was probably good because we both got a little worked up. Here's a bit about why.

Bok is a thoughtful, experienced leader in higher education and I have long appreciated his efforts to get colleges and universities to pay attention to undergraduate education.  He's written a book on the topic, and found a set of Bok Centers on many campuses to try and get faculty involved (unfortunately, as he admitted last night, engagement in the centers is often low).

The main thrust of his speech was that professors need to get focused on rigorously improving undergraduate education because policy changes are bringing a reform agenda focused on student outcomes, and we'd best get prepared. We ought to do this, he suggested, by acting as the good researchers we are and attending to and creating new research on what works to improve student learning and graduation rates. We ignore those studies at our peril, he said, instead going about our teaching in un-informed ways -- lecturing, failing to use technology, failing to conduct formative assessments etc-- and it's partly because there's a dearth of good research on quality teaching in undergraduate education. It's time to wake up and embrace our role in the problems we "know" exist-- a lack of learning in higher education, students who don't study, and falling graduation rates.

His contentions were on the one hand laudable -- I'm always a fan of people who push the comfortable elite to wake up-- and on the other hand deeply problematic.

First, Bok spoke about the faculty as if we are a homogeneous bunch.  Only once did he mention adjuncts, and it was when he said they were the workforce of for-profits, which are organizations that do pay attention to pedagogy, according to him.  So my open question to him, and the first question asked after his talk was "It is increasingly the case that we research types are not 'the faculty' -- the faculty are the enormous number of part-time, contingent, and adjunct workers used by administrations to teach for cheap.  What are the implications of your argument for them-- and what are the implications for tenure?"   I don't think Bok really understood my question since he respond simply that they 'they' needed to care about good teaching too. (He also made some statements about the potential that the use of adjuncts reduces graduation rates and promotes grade inflation--things that I have commentary on but will take up another day.)

Well, part-time, contingent, and adjunct faculty do care about teaching practices -- and they are arguably more experienced than those of us who teach a few times a year.  They also know quite a bit about technology and contemporary teaching practices.  But the big difference between "us" and "them" is tenure, status, and pay. They teach very frequently with little job security, no perks like offices to meet with students, and for very little money.  They are not segregated to for-profits as Bok suggested, but are employed nationwide in all types of colleges and universities.  And they are the workers whom the accountability movement will hit first, hit hardest, and undoubtedly change forever.  

When it does, "our" response will have everything to do with tenure.  And it will have everything to do with the future of tenure.  If those without tenure respond in ways policymakers "like," then you can be sure that tenure will be deemed the obstacle to student success -- just as it has in k-12 education -- and will be under steady attack.  We tenured professors will be pitted against our students in a classic "who cares most about student achievement" false dichotomy, and that is the situation we must prepare for-- and work to avoid.  That is what I'd hoped Bok would address.

A few other thoughts.  I'm tired of the movement to improve undergraduate outcomes being led by people at institutions where everyone finishes college and money appears to grow on trees.  I'm not saying people at those schools don't care about these issues, but most  speak in ways that suggest they are out-of-touch with the 99.9% of the rest of us.  (There are big exceptions to this rule-- Bridget Terry Long is one.)   One could make the case that Harvard got us into this mess -- leading the arms race, raising the costs of attendance like it was going out of style, and setting up an idealized standard in the public imagination that could never be realistically achieved.  The more public higher education tries to be like Harvard in any way, the more our doors close rather than open-- leaving the vast majority of students outside in the cold, just waiting to be devoured by the for-profits.  Again, I'm so happy people at elite places care about these issues, but I wish that they would (at minimum) partner with people in settings where the real problems actually exist.  And I think that wonderful foundations like Spencer should elevate the stature and share the work of people whose research struggles in focused, daily ways with the reality of students dropping out of college and faculty working over-time and under financial constraints to serve them.

I also fervently hope that leaders like Bok will stop repeating shaky empirical research findings that cast undergraduates as fundamentally lazy and underachieving.  Throughout his talk, Bok showed a recognition of the importance of rigorous research in establishing cause and effect.  Yet he gave great credence to studies of student time use that have enormous problems with measurement error, failed to recognize the role of technology in changing both study and leisure time, and again imposed a homogeneity assumption on undergraduates.   Ask yourself, what if undergraduates were mainly a hard-working bunch, with a strong desire to learn -- wouldn't you still want to work harder to teach them well? Why do we feel we must establish a crisis by saying they are unengaged partiers, playing more and doing less?

Finally, I take issue with a point Bok ended with -- the challenge of measuring learning outcomes in higher education. When asked whether he agreed that some goals of higher education are more difficult to measure than others, he responded that that's "mainly because people haven't thought through the issues of measurement enough and aren't clear enough on what those goals entail."   While I agree there is too much hand-waving at broad goals, and we often aren't specific enough about what we want students to actually learn, I disagree that everything is quantifiable and readily assessed.   College today is a place where life begins to come together for students-- and that happens alongside textbook learning and is a key piece of faculty work.  Those successes should be recognized and we deserve credit for them.  But they will not be easily measured.

Student Responds to UW System Board of Regents Meeting

Thursday, April 12, 2012
This week is also another meeting of the UW System Board of Regents. Consistent with yesterday's blog, here I am sharing some thoughts from one of my students who watched the February 9 meeting of that Board.  This was the meeting at which members discussed rising costs, cost containment, and the potential for cutting enrollment throughout UW System.

"The debate following the panel of chancellors reflected the three corners of the Iron Triangle: access, funding, and quality. Surprisingly, most of the concerns seemed to revolve around issues of quality, and to some extent access, not around funding concerns...When pressed on the issue, [President Kevin] Reilly was forced to admit that he did not know when or if quality decline would result in reduced enrollment...
Chancellors Sorenson and Wachter noted students' reluctance to leave universities for the workforce. While not using the same intense and accusatory rhetoric of a Jackson Toby, they did claim that students lack efficiency in pursuing their education. At this point [Vice-President] Mark Nook interjected to provide an anecdote about how his daughter ... had managed to graduate in 4 years...This reflected a misguided assumption that his daughter's experience is typical, rather than the reality that 3/4 of today's college students face serious constraints and pressures that could impede their academic progress. 
In one particularly poignant moment, Regent Jose Vasquez questioned how the System would provide for students of color and those with disabilities.  He was the only member to directly address issues of access for underserved populations. He noted that these students cost more than what he called 'ideal' and 'easy' students, and wondered how they'd be impacted by cost-cutting measures.  His remarks highlighted the the non-financial values of public higher education and provided a moment to undercut finance as the "privileged language of reality." Sadly, none of the board members or chancellors responded to his concern."

Students Respond to the UW Taskforce

Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Today the Wisconsin Legislature's "Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities" meets again in Madison.  In honor of that, I want to bring you some student perspectives on one of the prior task force meetings--the one that took place on February 8, and included presentations from the chancellors of UW-Madison and Milwaukee. I'm doing this because student voices are notably absent from these meetings-- students have not been given a chance to present (they will, for the first time, on May 9) and they do not serve on the task force.  A few have written letters or spoken publicly on the topic, but most have not.

Recently, students in my Introduction to Debates in Higher Education Policy course (EPS 518) were asked to view a legislative or regents hearing or meeting of their choosing and write a response paper.  Below, I provide some representative examples of their responses -- these are deliberately provided without attribution to the student (all are undergraduates) and are posted with their specific permission.  My intention is to simply allow the voices of students to emerge, as I think their comments and questions are critical to the discussion. If other students wish to share their considered opinions of hearings, please do send me your memos, and I'm happy to post thoughtful excerpts.

Student 1: "..The nature of the meeting itself...was self-congratulatory and generally insufficient in data. The meeting focused on individual knowledge and individual power, that is they spoke of their personal bailiwicks, which, while it makes sense for a panel of experts, was insufficient...though the panel brought up several reforms, these reforms were often self-serving, under-supported by data, and/or uncertain in their impact." 

Student 2: [Flexibilities were a primary topic of discussion at the hearing and yet] "there was an utter lack of understanding about what was being discussed...Despite the apparent knowledge gap about what flexibilities were, they were the main focus of discussion and seemed to be the only thing anyone believed could save the UW System money...What is perplexing about the deregulation rhetoric is that, according to Gary Rhoades, this behavior is...a trickle-down model of funding.  In exchange for deregulation and flexibilities, institutions receive less state support. This ends up privileging the elite institutions while creating problems for local institutions. However, it was chancellors of schools like UW-Oshkosh and Platteville who were calling for this deregulation..I cannot help but wonder why the chancellors of these schools would call for deregulation when it would mean less money from the state."

Student 3: "I was surprised at the small number of women on the task force-- just 3. I was disappointed at the lack of minority representation, but not surprised....[many spoke about the word 'product']  and the word 'product' is a difficult one, and its use underscores the different positions and value systems of the task force members. [Most] seemed to think that having a better education and a lower price were mutually exclusive things, and that one must be sacrificed for the other."

Student 4: "As a student, a major concern became evident at this meeting. Members of this task force have been charged with creating innovative solutions to the challenges facing the UW System, challenges that have arisen from a lack of funding. The majority of task force members, however, are not even close to specialists in higher education, let alone public higher education.  In fact these people who are supposed to be coming up with solutions are primarily business people who have spent most of their professional careers in the private sector.  [Thus] it is clear these are powerful voices denouncing the importance of public funding for various reasons."

Our Students Aren't Customers

Sunday, April 8, 2012
At Monday's Faculty Senate meeting, I'll deliver the annual report from the Committee for Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid (CURAFA). I have chaired that committee for several years, and while it is not usually something I discuss on this blog, I want to address a comment I made at the last meeting.

At that meeting, my colleague Adam Gamoran delivered a report from the committee on faculty compensation, and as part of that report suggested that the university raise more funds to pay faculty by increasing the overall number of undergraduates from out-of-state (OOS). He was not suggesting we decrease the number of in-state (IS) students, but rather that we grow the total number of undergraduates by enrolling more OOS students.

As CURAFA had not been told this suggestion was forthcoming, and I had not read his committee's entire report for the meeting (my fault), this took me by surprise.  In keeping with my scholarly work on higher education policy, I was aware of the likely reaction from students and the public to a proposal that could easily be read as an effort to put on onus on students and families to fund salary increases. Of course, Adam meant that this was needed only because the state wasn't doing its job of funding the university, but it was also clear right away that this wasn't the media message that would carry.  Further, the idea of increasing enrollment among OOS students was something CURAFA had discussed several times with the Office of Admissions, and it was clear from those conversations that this strategy was much easier said than done.

That is because the percent of OOS who enroll at Madison after being accepted is quite low. That "yield rate" is just 22% for domestic non-residents (this excludes Minnesota) -- lower than the national averages for public universities.  The large gap between applications and enrollments among OOS students is a function of many things-- many students apply to large numbers of institutions to improve their odds of admissions or odds of getting multiple offers that can be negotiated, and also many OOS students expect to be offered a nice merit scholarship to induce their attendance.  Yield is thus a far better indicator than applications of how many students truly prefer UW-Madison and can afford to attend it without scholarships.  The latter shouldn't matter generally, but in the case of OOS students, if we have to heavily discount their costs then we will not generate enough revenue to fund the growth in compensation the faculty desire.  Recent trends indicate that discounting is beginning to fail as a mechanism for attracting students, more of whom seem put off by the higher tuition charged for OOS students at public institutions, and private institutions more generally.  Moreover, UW-Madison is unique is being among a handful of public universities bucking the trend of shifting most financial aid from need-based to merit-based-- giving out relatively few scholarships to freshmen (scholarships to upperclassmen are another matter).

A few more specifics. Over the last ten years, UW-Madison's yield rate among domestic non-residents dropped from 26%  to 22%, even as applications for that group doubled.  During the same period, the yield among international non-residents dropped from 37% to 20%, as applications for that group increased sixfold.  But during that time the yield among Wisconsin residents grew from 60 to 62%, while the number of applications remained steady.   That yield among Wisconsin residents is very high, much higher than the national average, and is likely indicative of demand for more seats among Wisconsin taxpayers.

So the punchline is this:  demand among OOS students for enrollment at UW-Madison simply isn't very strong. That's what I honestly intended to say to the Faculty Senate in my remarks. Accomplishing what Adam's committee was suggesting therefore requires shifting (a) the distribution of merit-based aid, and/or (b) the admissions standards for OOS students.  Right now admissions standards appear to be applied similarly for IS and OOS students, on average.  Unless merit-based aid is used to increase the yield substantially, and unless that discounting is actually successful, growing the number of OOS students would require accepting more OOS students-- and this likely means digging deeper into the application pool.  It is an open and important question as to whether UW-Madison, its faculty, and its constituents want to have differential admissions standards based on residency.  That discussion should be had upfront and publicly, and should not be secondary to (or disguised behind) questions about whether the strategy will generate money.  That has been my point all along, and one I am admittedly quite emotional about since it's my view that UW-Madison's greatest strength is its commitments to high-quality education and service to the state, and its longstanding tradition (including among faculty) of putting those things ahead of monetary concerns.   Ours is not a culture rife with showy displays of consumption; instead we dig in and we focus on our students and our research.

Sadly, I failed in my remarks to make these points.  Moved to respond quickly and without time to gather myself sufficiently, instead I erred in suggesting that the applicant pool of OOS students was weaker academically than that for in-state students. The publicly available evidence (presented in terms of group averages) does not show this to be true, and I regret that I was not better prepared to state my concerns about the yield rate better, or able to discuss why I have some reservations about the data we do have available.  In the future I hope CURAFA and committees making recommendations related to admissions and financial aid will communicate better, so that we can all be better equipped to respond on the spot to proposals and questions at Senate.

Now, I know that some will contend we can simply increase the yield of high-achieving students with better recruitment. I disagree, mainly because this will require substantial additional resources for our relatively small admissions office (eating up the projected revenues from the new students), our Badger Alumni are already doing yeomen work, and because we are losing high-achieving OOS students to places we simply cannot and arguably should not be competing with.  For this group, our yield is just 15% -- 35% go to private institutions like Northwestern, 23% end up staying in-state, and 19% go to another out-of-state institution.   To capture the latter two groups, we have to spend more money through effective discounting -- recruitment alone won't do it.

I'll close with some final words about the overall strategy of using OOS students to increase revenues. It sounds too good to be true because it is.  Yes, it seems efficient and even equitable--if you support redistribution among students).  But as Christopher Newfield has pointed out, the "market-smart and mission centered" approach has a thin empirical evidentiary basis (in fact  more examples of market failures than market successes surround us these days) and brings with it some slippery-slope unintended consequences.  Here's one we are all familiar with: over time, UW-Madison has begun to feel more and more elite-- to both the faculty and to the state.  John Wiley spoke of this concern when he was chancellor, and commissioned a study to look at whether in fact family income among UW-Madison students was increasingly out-of-step with Wisconsin family incomes.  The answer in short is that the reason it feels this way is because of the increasingly high family incomes of OOS students.  The growing proportion of students from wealthier families on campus changes the feel of the place in ways both large and small-- they drive demand for more luxurious accommodations and services (witness Lucky!), enjoy clothing and other aspects of conspicuous consumption that make it harder than ever to "keep up with the Joneses,"and utilize their extensive networks and connections to take on powerful positions help lead votes to charge higher tuition and increase spending, so that UW-Madison will look like the private institutions where their friends attend.  Some even use the higher graduation rates of these more-advantaged OOS students to suggest (without any empirical evidence) that they graduate faster because they pay more.   Sure, they bring greater income and geographic "diversity" to some degree (though the real underrepresentation continues to be among students from below the poverty line) and some will say it broadens the horizons of all student-- but at the same time these changes make the flagship feel less and less like it's part of Wisconsin.  And therein lies the long-term problem.

Madison is not an island. It cannot hover into space, pulling apart from its land. Madison is Wisconsin.  And decisions about changing the degree to which it remains Wisconsin should be make democratically and discussed publicly, openly, and frequently and in arenas that separate these important questions about educational quality and climate from the ever-present, neo-liberalizing discussions about markets and revenue.  Treating our students as students, and not paying customers, is the very least we owe them.

National Assault on Community Colleges

Monday, April 2, 2012
A thought-provoking new report just out from the Center on the Future of Higher Education documents and laments the assault on community colleges underway across the country.

Bucking historic trends in rising college enrollments, there's been a startling stagnation or even a downturn in enrollment in community colleges, not because demand has declined but because there is insufficient capacity.  In some places and in some programs, thanks to substantial and sustained budget cuts, the community colleges are literally tapped out.

That's right-- students are showing up at "open door" colleges and being effectively turned away.  Welcome to the "new normal."

If you believe that the purpose of public postsecondary education is to provide opportunities to the most advantaged, this is insane. Clearly, the current model for public higher education is broken, and as the report argues, it's time for a "reboot." If you believe that college endows social goods, which entire communities benefit from, then you will support greater public investment in community colleges to reverse this trend. If you believe in equity, and actually understand how people with fewer resources make decisions, rather than assuming they are econometricians, then you'll demand change now.

If on the other hand, if you think that college is merely a private investment that accrues to individual people and you think that markets actually solve more problems than they create, and if you believe education is an economic good comparable to any other product then you probably think public higher education is in exactly the position it deserves.  The market must be working.  Sure, demand is outstripping supply, but thank goodness the private sector is here to help!  We can simply raise tuition at community colleges to fund them, and in the meantime pave the road for private institutions where the public has no say over governance or spending, or for that matter quality. (No, sorry, accreditation isn't going to ensure quality, and just as consumers demonstrate time and again, neither are the students.)  All that matters is that we provide the mirage of opportunity to satisfy our own appetite for the meritocracy narrative, right? And heck, maybe this will finally provide a way of telling everyone outside of the elite classes that they shouldn't be going to college anyway!

Read the report. Either this is a crisis we have to resolve, or we are denying the existence of a crisis because the assault on community colleges is an intentional one designed to promote the growth of private and for-profit institutions.  "Stealth privatization" of higher education, as Richard Vedder called it at a conference my department hosted last week, is no longer so stealth at all.  The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education-- and students nationwide-- want to know, isn't it time to DO something about it?