Office of Planning and Budgeting

We have updated the OPB brief we posted on February 27th, to reflect additional information regarding the employee health insurance related agency reductions. Both the House and Senate budget would decrease agency contributions for employee health benefits. The House budget cuts state funding by $7.6 million and the Senate budget cuts state funding by $4.4 million. However, both of these reductions are offset by lower per employee spending “limits” on benefits. The House budget would reduce monthly employer funding to $658 per eligible employee. The Senate budget would reduce monthly employer funding to $703 per eligible employee.

As you may have heard, President Obama recently announced his “Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students” initiative, which aims to help more low-income and underrepresented minority students attend and complete college. On January 16th, the White House hosted a summit of the more than 100 colleges, universities, nonprofits, and foundations that made commitments to increase college opportunity. The Chronicle provides a detailed, sortable list of these commitments.

News coverage of the summit and the initiative includes the following:

After years of budget cuts, most higher education lobbyists across the country expect flat or slightly increased funding for higher education during upcoming state legislative sessions. According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, three-quarters of states increased spending on higher education by more than 3 percent in the current fiscal year. Despite these efforts, funding for public colleges and universities is still well below 2008 funding levels. Many experts believe that this may be the new normal—with continued economic uncertainty and many other programs, such as Medicaid, K-12 education, or state pensions, competing for the state’s resources, higher education may have to make do with less.

For those states that are increasing funding for higher education, the money is often coming with more strings attached. About 20 states have implemented performance-based funding, which ties state dollars to the accomplishment of certain goals, such as an increased graduation rate, lower student debt, or more STEM majors. Some states, including Washington, are also limiting tuition increases or requiring universities to divert more money to financial aid. While many higher education administrators welcome the chance to improve institutional efficiency and student outcomes, they are also wary of legislators setting unrealistic goals or failing to appreciate the complexity of their institutions.

Washington seems to be following the national trend, both in the expectation of flat or moderately increased funding in the coming session and in the likely adoption of performance-based funding. Governor Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget includes some modest funding for select UW initiatives, but no across-the-board increase. The public institution-led Technical Incentive Funding Model Task Force is exploring ways to implement performance-based funding in Washington. To read more about either of these, check out our blog post on Governor Inslee’s supplemental budget and the Technical Incentive Funding website. To learn more about state budgets and performance funding nationally, check out this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and this piece in Inside Higher Ed.

Now that news sources are back from their holiday hiatus, we have a couple of noteworthy stories to bring you.  Both articles highlight the continuing trend toward greater accountability.

Florida’s new rules linking tenure with student success are upheld:  Last week in Florida, a judge upheld new rules by the State Department of Education that require tenure decisions—known in Florida as “continuing contracts”—to be contingent upon professors’ performance on certain student success criteria. The judge also upheld a new requirement that faculty must work for five years, rather than three, before being eligible for the contracts. The United Faculty of Florida had contested that the new rules were beyond the scope of the department’s powers, but the judge rejected that claim.

Senators propose penalties for colleges with high student-loan default rates:  On Thursday, three Democratic senators introduced a bill dubbed “the Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2013,” which would impose a fine on colleges with high student-loan default rates and federal student-aid enrollment rates of at least 25 percent. Penalties would be on a sliding scale. On the low end, colleges with default rates of 15 to 20 percent would incur a fee equal to 5 percent of the total value of loans issued to their students in default. On the high end, schools with default rates of 30 percent or more would incur a 20 percent penalty.  The Education Department currently cuts off federal funds for institutions with high default rates, but the senators argue it punishes only “the most extravagant, outrageous schools.” The Chronicle writes, “The proposed legislation would hit for-profit institutions the hardest, as their graduates have the highest default rates, on average.”

Student Exchanges Hit Record High.  According to the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities and the number of American students studying abroad are at record highs. In 2012-13, 820,000 foreign students attended American higher ed institutions, a 55,000 increase (7.2 percent) from the previous year. Chinese undergraduates exhibited the biggest increase, 26 percent, bringing the total number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. (undergraduates and graduates) to 235,000. In 2011-12 (the most recent year for which data are available) 283,000 American students went abroad for credit university courses, up 3.4 percent from the prior year.  For institutions hosting the most international students, the UW ranked 14th in the country.

New Studies Cast Doubt on Effectivenessof State Performance-based Funding.  Now that economies are recovering from the Great Recession, state legislators across the country have been hurrying to adopt systems that link state funding for higher education to student outcomes like degree production and completion rates. However, several research papers presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education question the effectiveness of these “performance-based funding” systems. See Inside Higher Ed for a summary of the findings.

College Completion Rates See Little Improvement.  College-completion rates remained largely unchanged this year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Of the first-time students who entered college in fall 2007, 54.2 percent earned a degree or certificate within six years—up 0.1 percentage points from the 2006 cohort. In the public sector, completion rates rose by 1.3 percentage points for students who started at public four-years and by 1.1 percentage points for those who began at public two-years. Unlike the federal government’s college-completion measure, the center tracks part-time students and students who transfer to a different college, sector, or state. Only 22 percent of part-time students earned credentials within six years, compared with 76 percent of those enrolled full time. The research center will issue its full report next month.

University of Michigan’s Shared Services Strategy Faces Opposition.  The University of Michigan is the latest campus to implement “shared services,” a cost-saving strategy that has academic departments rely on centralized staff, rather than department-level staffers. Theoretically, employees in the central pool could become more specialized, and thus more efficient, than departments’ jack-of-all-trades staff. Administrators at Michigan hoped to save $17 million by moving 275 staffers from their campus offices to a single building on the edge of town. However, not only are faculty and students speaking out in opposition, the plan is no longer expected to save nearly as much as once hoped and may barely break even in the short term. Read more at Inside Higher Ed.

Consumer advocates applauded the Department of Education’s second—and substantially more stringent—set of draft regulations for the “gainful employment” rule, released on Friday. They claim the metrics, which apply to vocational programs at for-profit institutions and community colleges, will better measure the program’s loan default and repayment rates. Programs that do not meet the Department of Education’s standards under the gainful employment rule will lose federal student aid eligibility.  

The Department of Education’s initial regulatory language, released in September, included two measures of debt-to-earnings ratios for graduates of vocational programs. However, these measures did not require the institutions to report debt-to-earnings ratios for students who dropped out of the program without earning a degree—an oversight that critics of for-profits believed would be misleading.

The new regulations would include a loan default ratio metric, as well as a measure of repayment rates across an academic program’s “portfolio” of loans. The law would require that the total principal balance of loans borrowed for an academic program is less at the end of the year than it was at the beginning. The measure will therefore capture repayment rates both for students who earn a credential and those who do not.

For-profit supporters are critical of the new language, saying their ideas and suggestions for crafting a metric for gainful employment were not taken into account. They claim that the new rules, if implemented, could deny needy students access to vocational programs that may help them get better jobs. Critics of for-profits counter that the rules will help students make more informed decisions about the likelihood that they will be able to repay their loans, as well as ensure that institutions that receive federal aid dollars are offering high-quality degrees.

While the gainful employment rule applies only to vocational programs at for-profit institutions and community colleges, President Obama’s proposed ratings system, which would tie federal financial aid funds to performance metrics, applies to all institutions that receive federal dollars. If implemented, the ratings system would hold all institutions accountable to similar standards—a prospect that worries many administrators who claim they cannot control their students’ career success or the labor market.

The second round of negotiations on the gainful employment rule begins this week. As always, we will keep you posted on their progress.

UNC institution may cut physics, political science, history

Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college in North Carolina, may discontinue its physics, political science, and history degree programs because they are considered “low productive.” Many higher education leaders are alarmed by this move, claiming that history education is fundamental to American higher education, particularly at a historically black university in the South. Read more about the potential cuts here.

Complete College America analyzes states’ performance funding models

Complete College America, a proponent of linking state funding for higher education to student outcomes like degree production and completion rates recently released a report that details and scores how states are implementing performance-based funding formulas. Sixteen states currently have performance funding strategies; the majority account for universities’ unique missions and reward institutions  that help underserved student populations succeed. The report argues that there is now enough knowledge about how to implement a successful performance-based funding program that such strategies could be adopted nation-wide. Check out this Inside Higher Ed article for more.

Coursera and U.S. government partner on world-wide MOOC service

One of the largest MOOC providers, Coursera, announced on Thursday that it is partnering with the federal government to establish “learning hubs” around the globe, where students can access MOOCs and attend weekly, in-person class discussions facilitated by local instructors. The learning hubs are intended to remedy the lack of reliable internet in certain countries as well as address the growing opinion that students are more successful when they discuss classwork and meet with their teachers in person. Read more at an article by the NY Times.

Flipping the classroom may have its limits

Flipping the classroom, a practice in which students listen to pre-recorded lectures at home and then engage in hands-on learning exercises in class, has gained popularity and esteem as a way to improve student performance. However, an experiment at Harvey Mudd College compared the outcomes of students in flipped STEM courses with those of students in traditional STEM courses and found no demonstrable differences. Professors also claimed they spent much more time preparing for the flipped classes (creating videotaped lectures and engaging classroom activities) than they had preparing for traditional classes. The findings are still preliminary, and the sample at Harvey Mudd is very small. The study could, however, highlight the fact that flipped classrooms may not be well-suited for every  context or class type. Certain conditions are likely to produce better results than others. Read more here.  

UC President announces aid for illegal immigrants

Janet Napolitano—former Secretary of Homeland Security and current president of the University of California (UC)—said Wednesday that the UC system would put $5 million toward special counseling and financial aid for students living in the country illegally. The NY Times reports the move is “aimed at disarming critics who worried she would be hostile to the small but vocal student population.”

As of last Thursday, select California community colleges can charge differential tuition for their most popular extension courses. California’s Governor Jerry Brown supported the bill as an “experiment” that would give a limited number of colleges some flexibility to offer more sections of their most popular courses. The system, which has suffered many years of deep budget cuts, currently turns away as many as 600,000 students because colleges cannot afford to offer enough courses to accommodate them.

The new California law allows six community colleges to charge students for the “actual” cost of the courses, including instruction, equipment, and supplies, rather than the heavily subsidized $46 per credit that they currently assess. The rates are expected to be more than three times higher than the current rate for residents. In order to participate in the program, the colleges must be over-enrolled and the new sections they offer cannot replace the original class. The original class must maintain the current tuition rates, but if the course is full, new sections of the course can be more expensive. The law also requires that a third of the revenue gained from the extension courses be returned back to financial aid.

Critics of the program believe that the law is a first step towards eroding California’s strong commitment to affordable and accessible community colleges. They argue that this program is merely a “toll road for the economically privileged” that will put low-income students at a severe disadvantage. Supporters counter that the program, at the very least, expands access to popular courses and, at best, might even help low-income students because of the 33 percent return-to-aid requirement.

To read more about the program, check out this Inside Higher Ed Article or read the law itself.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to be in favor of upholding a Michigan referendum, known as Proposition 2, which banned the use of affirmative action in the state’s public colleges and universities. The case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, is not about whether it is permissible for public colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions, but whether it is legal for voters to bar such consideration. For background information about this case, please see our previous post.

Tuesday’s arguments focused primarily on a piece of the Equal Protection Clause, known as the “political process doctrine,” which states that political processes cannot be altered in a way that puts minorities at a disadvantage. Opponents of Proposition 2, contend that, under the measure, minority groups who want to reinstate affirmative action must launch a difficult and expensive campaign to re-amend the state constitution, whereas Michigan citizens seeking changes to other university admissions policies are free to simply lobby university regents. This, they argue, places an unfair and disadvantageous burden on minorities.

Swing vote, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, expressed doubts about whether Proposition 2 truly violates the political process doctrine and only two liberal members of the court voiced major criticisms of the Michigan measure. Thus, with Justice Elena Kagan recused from the case, the numbers point toward the court upholding Proposition 2. Such a decision would effectively preserve similar bans adopted by voters in Arizona, California, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Washington; by lawmakers in New Hampshire; and by the public university governing board in Florida. In addition, it could theoretically embolden campaigns for similar ballot measures
elsewhere.

While it seems clear the Justices will rule in favor of Michigan, it is less clear whether the Justices are interested in reversing the political process doctrine, which dates back more than 40 years. In 1982, for example, the justices ruled against a Washington referendum that attempted to prevent Seattle from using a local busing program to desegregate schools. NPR reports that Michigan Solicitor General, John Bursch, “urged the Supreme Court to reverse the Seattle decision and others like it, if necessary.”

We’ll post updates as more information becomes available.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently released “Skills Outlook 2013,” a report that studies adults’ skills in literacy, numeracy, and technology across 24 countries. While Japan and Finland ranked first and second respectively in average scores, the United States scored significantly below average in all three fields. Many experts worry that the US will not be able to compete in a global marketplace unless we are able to improve proficiency in these skill areas.

There was not much good news for the United States in the OECD’s report: Americans ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy (comprehending and interpreting words, sentences and complex texts), 21st out of 23 in numeracy (solving problems in a mathematical context), and 14th out of 19 in technology skills (problem-solving using a computer). Furthermore, socioeconomic background was a greater predictor of skill proficiency in the United States than in other countries, indicating large social disparities and a low potential for upward mobility. However, socioeconomic background was less of a predictor for younger US adults, meaning (perhaps) that socioeconomic background is becoming less of a barrier with time. Lastly, not only did the US score below average in all areas, there was hardly any improvement between younger and older generations. For numeracy, older US adults (ages 55-65) performed near the average, but younger US adults (ages 16-24) scored dead last among all participating countries. This last point is particularly concerning as it suggests young people are entering a much more demanding labor market, but are not much better prepared than those who are retiring.

These disappointing results raise an interesting question: if the US has such a dearth of skilled workers, how is it able to remain an innovative and productive economy? Anthony Carnevale, from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, believes it is because the US compensates the most talented and skilled workers exceptionally well, which attracts significant foreign talent and creates great innovation and growth from the top down. However, as growth in the future will likely require more skills at every level of the economy, the American advantage could be slipping. The authors suggest that better educational opportunities and better training in the workplace will be necessary to reduce social inequities, improve upward mobility, and thus avoid economic stagnation. While the report finds that more education is correlated with higher skill proficiency, the quality of education in different countries can differ to the extent that a 25-34 year old high school graduate from Japan exhibits better skill proficiency than a college graduate from Spain. This suggests that adults can learn important skills outside of the traditional educational track—through better job training, adult education, and skill certification and recognition.  

For more information, check out the full OECD report, or analysis by Inside Higher Ed and the New York Times.

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