Office of Planning and Budgeting

As reported on the UW Office of Federal Relations blog, President Obama made a splash in the higher education community last week when he outlined new proposals for higher education reform in his State of The Union Address and in a speech at the University of Michigan. Many are praising the President’s focus on the value of higher education in today’s economy, and in particular, the importance of high quality, affordable higher education. However, a proposal to more closely tie federal financial aid funding  to some kind of institutional performance measures has proved more controversial.

In what the Administration is calling a Blueprint for College Affordability, Obama has proposed that Congress significantly increase available federal campus-based aid (primarily Perkins loans) and distribute the funds based on three institutional performance measures, including relatively low net tuition levels or low tuition growth, providing a good value to students, and serving low-income students. Until a detailed policy proposal is unveiled (likely after the election), it is difficult to know how substantial a shift this may be for institutions, but it is clearly an attempt to send a message to institutions about cost control. Obama stated, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”

Other proposals included in Obama’s blueprint, include:

  • Creating a $1 billion Race to the Top program to reward states for making systemic changes in education policy and funding to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Creating a $55 million First in the World competition to provide seed funding for institutions or other nonprofits to innovate.
  • Publishing a ‘College Scorecard’ for each institution, which will provide clear, comparable information on college costs, financial aid, graduation rates and, if these data become available, potential earnings.
  • Asking Congress to make the American Opportunity Tax Credit permanent, extend the lowered federal student loan interest rate (3.4%), and double the number of federal work study jobs.

Without policy details it is hard to know how these reforms might affect specific institutions, but because it marks a shift from previous federal efforts to facilitate attainment by increasing federal aid and easing federal loan repayment pressure, it is an important development and one that we will keep a close eye on.

A new report put out by the National Science Foundation examines math and science education at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary level. In general, the news is sobering: elementary and secondary proficiency in science and math is languishing below 40 percent nationwide. Chapter 8 of the report focuses on state indicators, featuring state-by-state breakdowns of science and math education. Important indicators include the number of Bachelor’s degrees conferred, the proportion of degrees in science and engineering (S&E) fields, state expenditures on higher education, and the prevalence of S&E jobs in the workforce. Interesting findings include:

  • In 2009, 1.6 million bachelor’s degrees were conferred in the United States, up 29 percent since 2000. Of these degrees, more than 501,000 were in S&E fields. In Washington State, 32.9 percent of degrees conferred were S&E degrees.
  • During 2010, the annual sticker price for a public 4-year education was $15,014, which represents a 43 percent increase since 2000 (after adjusting for inflation). This does not represent net price, since this number does not include financial aid.
  • In 2009, undergraduate education at a state institution consumed 35.7 percent of a Washington resident’s disposable income. Note that this number does not account for the 20 percent tuition hike in 2010.
  • State funding for major public research universities per student enrolled in 2000 was $10,107, which dropped to $8,815 in 2009.
  • In Washington, 32.5 percent of 25-44 year olds hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • 5.83 percent of Washington’s residents in 2009 were employed in S&E fields, up from 5.16 percent in 2000.
  • Washington has one of the highest rates of patents awarded per worker in S&E occupations in the US—28.2 patents per 1000 S&E workers.

The report indicates that research is flourishing and that Washington is increasingly awarding more degrees in S&E fields, but also that state funding for higher education and affordability have decreased dramatically. We will explore this report more in future posts. To read more about the report, check out the Higher Ed Chronicle post or read the full report.

New OPB Brief

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This week, UPenn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE) released a report assessing the state of higher education policy in Washington State. While satisfactorily describing the key facts and long-term trends and potential future problems for higher education in Washington State, the report is somewhat unrealistic in its recommendations. It seems to assume that, absent any change in state funding trends, policymakers can dramatically alter educational attainment via structural changes in governance.

Read the latest OPB brief for more information.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce issued a new report,  Hard Times, which focuses once again on why a college education is so important to employment and earnings in the US economy. While persistent critics of the value of higher education point to the recently rising unemployment rate for new college graduates, 8.9 percent, the report points out that for workers with only a high school degree the unemployment rate is 22.9 percent, and 31.5 percent for high school dropouts. The combined unemployment rate for all workers with a BA degree is currently 5 percent.

In addition to pointing out the positive correlation between college education and earnings and employment, the report analyzes data by college major. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that the unemployment rate for majors closely tied to a particular industry or job (such as healthcare, business and education) was lower than the rate for those with more generalized degrees. The exception to this were majors like Architecture that are so closely tied to a currently ailing industry that current unemployment rates are the highest of all.

Ultimately, as the economy recovers and the recent graduates gain more experience, all graduates are expected to enjoy improved employment rates.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute published an interesting paper recently called Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning. While primarily focused on the role of technology in K-12 education, the paper provides perspective for higher education as well. This topic is especially important as the economic crisis continues to push universities to produce more with less and, as a result, demands to scale up online learning intensify.

The paper recognizes the hope and possibility that technology will produce productivity gains in education over the long-term, but addresses major questions about quality and cost and emphasizes the need for systematic testing and analysis prior to radically changing today’s teaching model. Among the important points brought up in the paper:

  • We must question not only whether online learning can be less expensive than traditional learning, but, more importantly, whether it can be both less expensive and at least as good (or better) in quality and outcomes. We do not yet have enough data to answer this question.
  • The world of online learning is not monolithic. There are many ways to integrate technology with learning , and each model has very different costs and benefits and downsides.
  • Like with any new model, the start-up costs are very high and require a large up-front  investment.
  • Many assume that online learning will minimize labor costs by reducing a reliance on in-person instruction, but labor costs associated with developing, running, and maintaining sophisticated technology-based programs are themselves very high.
  • Similarly, online learning requires a dependence on expensive equipment (not only individual learning devices for teachers and students, but also servers, storage, and all the needs that accompany the maintenance and management of a large, technology-based enterprise).
  • Because technology changes so frequently, many of these costs are confronted anew on a much more regular basis than in a traditional educational model (e.g. Universities spending millions to wire entire campuses and then very quickly having to switch everything over to WiFi).

Technology has revolutionized how we live and do business in the modern world. This has been true in education as well, but the effect has not yet been as transformative as was hoped for. As education becomes more important in developing the human capital required for the economy of the future, its rising costs have become a bigger target for reform. And while it is clear that technology can and should play a larger role in changing how we educate the students of tomorrow, it is important that neither the tools of education nor the cost of education take precedence over the quality of the education.

The New York Times Economix blog has some recent posts discussing new data that continue to illustrate the economic benefits of a college education. Check out all Economix posts that have been tagged with the topic Is College Worth it.

These data and conclusions align with our recent OPB brief, Is Undergraduate Education America’s Next Economic Bubble.