Office of Planning and Budgeting

For the first time since “9/11”, the number of Chinese students applying to American graduate programs has declined significantly. According to a Council of Graduate Schools report released today, the number of graduate applications from China is down 5 percent this year, after having risen by 19, 21 and 20 percent in the previous three years.

The drop in graduate applications from China was offset by increases from India and Brazil, resulting in an overall increase of 1 percent in international student applications. However, this figure remains concerning: international graduate applications had increased by 9, 11 and 9 percent in the previous three years.

This news comes as the Washington State Senate contemplates imposing a 20% surcharge on tuition paid by international students to fund higher education in the state. The UW has already warned the such a surcharge would drive away top talent, reduce positive externalities associated with diversity, and generally make the UW less competitive compared to its peers. Today’s report merely strengthens the argument: even without the surcharge, the UW will be competing for a shrinking pool of top international talent.

To follow developments regarding the surcharge proposal (SB 5893), visit BillTracker.

Senate Ways & Means Chair Andy Hill released the Senate budget proposal today. Please see the OPB Brief for a complete analysis.

Tuition: The Senate Chair budget contains language allowing the Regents to set tuition and fees for all student categories other than resident undergraduates. The budget bill assumes no tuition increases for resident undergraduates; however, UW Regents retain the authority to set tuition rates under HB 1795. It is crucial to note that the budget states that these tuition provisions will be nullified if SB 5883 passes. SB 5883 would require a 3 percent decrease in resident undergraduate tuition for 2013-14.

Compensation: The budget deems the UW’s collective bargaining agreements (CBA) to be financially feasible and restores the 3 percent salary cut imposed on state agencies in the last biennium. We assume the budget lifts the current salary freeze for state employees as it makes no mention of extending it. In addition, the budget assumes savings by changing the definition of “full time” employee to align state employee healthcare eligibility with the federal standard set out in the Affordable Care Act. This is a significant change in policy, and we expect it to become a serious topic of public debate in the weeks to come.

Other policy changes affecting the UW include:

  1. Funding for the Joint Aerospace Initiative with WSU;
  2. Appropriations for a new Center on Ocean pH Balance;
  3. One-time, performance-based funding;
  4. Operation and maintenance funding for MolE and Dempsey Hall;
  5. Funding reductions related to administrative efficiencies;
  6. An international student surcharge; and
  7. A fund transfer from the UW Hospital Account.

The Senate chair budget proposal is one of a series of budgets released as part of the biennial budget process; the House is expected to release its budget proposal next week. It is likely that the UW will not have a clear sense of its actual anticipated state funding level until later this month.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether a 2006 Michigan referendum to ban public colleges from using race or ethnicity in admissions is constitutional. This is the second affirmative-action case on the court’s docket —the first being Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (discussed in a previous blog). If the Supreme Court declares the ban, known as Proposition 2, unconstitutional, similar bans in Washington and five other states could also be invalidated.

Inside Higher Ed nicely summed up the difference between the two affirmative action cases: “The Texas case is about the extent to which public colleges and universities may consider race and ethnicity in admissions, while the Michigan case is about the extent to which voters can bar such consideration.”

The Supreme Court accepted the Michigan case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, after the state’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, appealed a November ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The appeals court struck down Proposition 2 in an 8-7 vote, on the grounds that it “undermines the Equal Protection Clause’s guarantee that all citizens ought to have equal access to the tools of political change.” Under Proposition 2, minority citizens who want public university admissions to consider race must launch a burdensome ballot campaign, whereas groups seeking other university policy changes are free to simply lobby.

Schuette argues that Michigan’s measure and the Equal Protection Clause both protect a fair political process, whereas “preferential treatment based on race (which necessarily means discrimination against other races)… focuses entirely on achieving a particular outcome (here, an admissions outcome), even at the expense of making the process discriminatory.” Michigan’s measure, he says, “does not endorse race-based policies; just the opposite, it stops discrimination based on race.”

The Supreme Court will hear the Michigan case in its term starting in October.  Its ruling in the Texas case is expected this spring or summer, but could occur at any time.

Legislation was introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday that would require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for overenrolled, on-campus classes. If the bill passes and is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (who has been a strong supporter of online education), online courses could go mainstream much more quickly than predicted. At the moment, however, Senate Bill 520 is just a two-page legislative placeholder, or “spot bill,” to be amended with details later.

According to Inside Higher Ed, the bill’s sponsor, Democrat State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said the bill is meant to “break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing courses.” In Fall 2012, more than 472,000 of the 2.4 million students in the California Community Colleges system were put on waiting lists and at the California State University system, only 16 percent of students graduate within four years. Theoretically, increasing capacity to meet student demand for key, gateway courses could improve on-time graduation rates and more efficiently use state funds. The debate, of course, is whether online courses are actually effective and thus appropriate substitutes for traditional courses.

Under the proposed legislation, a nine-member faculty council representing the state’s three public higher ed systems would determine which 50 introductory courses are most oversubscribed and which online equivalents should be eligible for credit. When reviewing online courses, the panel is to consider whether a course:

  • Offers instructional support to promote retention;
  • Provides interaction between instructors and students;
  • Contains proctored exams and assessment tools;
  • Uses open-source text books; and
  • Includes content recommended by the American Council on Education.

MOOCs provided by Udacity and Coursera, as well as low-cost, self-paced courses from StraighterLine could all be up for consideration—several of which have already gained ACE approval.

Senator Steinberg emphasized at a news conference that the legislation “does not represent a shift in funding priority” for higher education in California, and is not intended to introduce “a substitution for campus-based instruction.” Nevertheless, for the many faculty and university administrators concerned about SB 520’s consequences, the devil may be in the yet-to-be-determined details. We’ll keep you apprised as those details are fleshed out.

Although there are many types of financial aid, it is typically awarded on the basis of either need or merit. Need-based aid is largely a result of a federal calculation and is somewhat predictable:  to ensure access, students with more financial need receive more financial aid of various forms. And, although there is no universal definition of the merit aid, it traditionally describes scholarship money used to attract top academic achievers. However, Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the New America Foundation, asserts in a recent commentary for The Chronicle that a significant portion of merit aid is actually used to attract “academically marginal students with wealthy parents.”

Carey cites evidence of this trend. A 2011 U.S. Department of Education study found that of the full-time students at four-year institutions who received “merit” aid in 2007-08, almost 20 percent had entered college with a combined SAT score of less than 700 and 45 percent had scored below 1000 (out of a possible 1600). The study also shows that although the percentage of private college students receiving need-based aid showed a slight decline from 1995 to 2007 (going from 43 to 42 percent), the proportion receiving “merit” aid nearly doubled during that time span (from 24 to 44 percent).   At public universities, the percentage of students getting need-based aid increased from 13 to 16 percent, but the growth in merit aid outpaced it, going from 8 to 18 percent.  Thankfully, as discussed in a previous post, a group of private-college presidents has been calling on its peers to limit the amount of financial aid awarded on criteria other than need.

The National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs’ (NASSGAP) Annual Survey Report on State-Sponsored Student Financial Aid and Brookings’ Beyond Need and Merit: Strengthening State Grant Programs provide corroborating evidence that merit-aid is becoming more prevalent, while need-based aid is diminishing.  However, neither discusses the academic strength of the students receiving merit aid.

So why is this happening?  If a college offers good scholarships and financial aid packages to an affluent family, it may incentivize them to choose that school.  Even though that family’s son or daughter may be a low academic achiever who has a decent chance of dropping out, it is still lucrative for the school to attract those students.  Noel-Levitz, a higher ed consulting firm, revealed that one of its client colleges was able to generate over $10,000 more per low-achieving student than they could per top-achieving student.

Carey hopes that as taxpayers, the news media, and affiliates of universities become aware of this trend, their vigilance will keep institutions in check.

Many of the white papers sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project have focused on modifications to the Pell program and/or student loans and repayment (including the two I summarized previously, found here and here). However, the white paper released on Wednesday by the Center on Postsecondary and Economic Success takes a different approach.  It argues that by making tax-based student aid more beneficial to low and middle-income students, the federal government could save billions of dollars, direct those savings to the Pell program and improve the financial aid system as a whole.

Current tax-based financial aid provides high-income families with much larger tax deductions, since the value of the deductions is linked to a family’s marginal tax rate. As The Chronicle notes, “a $100 tax deduction, for example, is worth early $40 to a high-income household but only $10 to a lower-earning family.”  To remedy this issue and refocus the benefits of aid onto low-income families, the Center proposes increasing the refundable portion of the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). The Center also recommends eliminating nonrefundable tax credits, such as the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC), since they do not benefit households that pay no income tax (i.e. low-income families).

The table below shows the percent distribution of student aid by type and income category in 2013. As you can see, Pell Grants (in blue) primarily benefit low-income families, whereas tax-based student aid (in purple) does the opposite.  Another interesting table from the Tax Policy Center can be found here.

The paper includes three alternative proposals for making tax-based aid more helpful to low-income students and simultaneously boosting college access and completion.  It also discusses three options for improving performance measures used in student-aid policies.

On Tuesday, February 12, President Obama discussed higher education briefly in his State of the Union Address. The President repeated a popular refrain, calling on colleges to restrain soaring tuition costs in light of the fact that Americans with some higher education are more likely to maintain steady employment and earn a comfortable income (or, as the President declared, be part of the middle class). As have many others when discussing this topic, the President juxtaposed college access and affordability against college costs without making the important connection to overall funding. As is clear at the University of Washington (UW) and many of its public peers, public funding (both state and federal) that traditionally provided the financial backbone for such institutions has become unstable, showing precipitous declines. It is in this context that tuition and other forms of auxiliary support have increased to maintain some semblance of consistent funding.

After having evaluated the scorecard,  the following two key points are worth noting and exploring.

  1. Obama’s suggested HEA reauthorization policy that would tie federal financial aid to “affordability” runs the risk of disenfranchising students studying in states that cannot or will not support higher education. It may also force institutions in those states to reduce the quality of their educational offerings in order to enable their students to maintain access to federal aid dollars.
  2. Although the UW looks relatively good in comparison to other institutions now, we cannot be comfortable with the comparison because we were advantaged by the particular time period for which data were available. The UW is vulnerable to faring poorly in these comparisons in the future as data from the past couple of years, in which we were forced to increase tuition at higher rates in order to compensate for dramatic reductions in state support, are used.

Please see a full Planning & Budgeting brief on line.

After many years, immigration reform seems to be back on the table: both President Obama and Congress have indicated that they intend to take on immigration reform this year. A bipartisan group of senators released their draft of an immigration bill, which focuses on increasing border security, giving DREAMers (children brought to the United States illegally at a young age) and agricultural workers a faster path for citizenship, and fixing the administrative processes that make getting visas cumbersome. President Obama released a similar plan, and last summer issued an executive order giving DREAMers temporary relief from deportation.

In Washington State, two bills have been proposed to reform Washington’s policies toward undocumented students. Washington’s undocumented student population has increased in recent years, as undocumented workers form a large part of the state’s agricultural industry. Currently, undocumented students in Washington are eligible for in-state tuition as long as they graduate from a Washington high school and have lived in the state for two years.  Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, however, have introduced competing bills concerning undocumented students who want to pursue higher education at Washington’s public colleges and universities. Don Benton, a Republican from Vancouver, introduced SB 5087, which would prevent undocumented students from qualifying for resident undergraduate tuition, even if they graduated from a Washington State high school and have lived in the state for many years. SB 5655, introduced by Ed Murray, D-Seattle, takes a different approach, making undocumented students eligible not only for resident tuition, but also for the State Need Grant and the College Bound Scholarship. Neither bill has yet been scheduled for a hearing. The first legislative cutoff date is February 22nd, after which all bills that have not been scheduled for a hearing are unlikely to progress.  

To read more about the President and Congress’ plans for immigration reform, check out Crosscut’s analysis here and here.

Aligning the Means and the Ends: How to Improve Federal Student Aid and Increase College Access and Success” is the Institute for College Access & Success’s (TICAS) white paper for the Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (see our recent post for more information). Some of the report’s suggestions have been echoed in other white papers and publications, such as simplifying the federal financial aid application process, making the Pell program a mandatory federal budget item, and fostering more understandable and comparable reporting of college costs. The paper’s others recommendations include:

  • Holding colleges accountable not only to the percentage of student borrowers who default on loans (represented by the currently-used cohort default rates), but also to the percentage of students who take out loans in the first place. TICAS proposes denying federal aid to colleges that score below a certain threshold on a combined index of the two measures. The group also recommends increasing federal aid to colleges scoring above a certain threshold. The amount of additional aid would be determined by how much Pell funding their students receive.
  • Shoring up the Pell Grant. TICAS proposes doubling the maximum Pell grant award, to about $11,000 a year, and extending the eligibility timeframe from 6 years to 7.5.
  • Creating a single federal student loan with no fees and a fixed interest rate. The rate would be low while students are in school and would rise, by a fixed amount with a cap, when they leave.
  • Streamlining repayment plans, replacing multiple options for income-based plans with only one. Delinquent borrowers would automatically be placed in the income-based plan; but, a non-income-based option would be available to other borrowers. TICAS wants to leave borrowers with a choice, but argues they need real counseling—not just disclosure—to help them decide.
  • Eliminating higher education tax benefits and sending the savings to Pell Grants and monetary incentives for states and colleges.  If tax benefits are preserved, the group recommends restructuring them into an upgraded American Opportunity Tax Credit aimed at helping low- and moderate-income students.

TICAS’ paper outlines a few ways the government could fund these proposals in addition to potentially eliminating higher ed tax benefits.  As The Chronicle nicely summarized, those options include, “limiting the benefit of itemized tax deductions, taxing private equity and hedge-fund income like other income, and removing or reforming tax-exempt bonds for private nonprofit colleges.”

The Gates Foundation has joined the nation’s financial aid conversation and is attempting to rethink how policies and practices can not only help maintain access (in the face of flagging state support and rising tuition prices), but also help students succeed. In September of last year, the Gates Foundation launched its Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, which provided 16 organizations with funding to develop and publish innovative financial aid strategies aimed at encouraging college completion. One of the 16 organizations, the New America Foundation, recently released its white paper, which recommends bolstering Pell Grants, limiting student loan options, and removing higher ed tax benefits.

To improve “both the effectiveness and sustainability of Pell Grants,” the New America Foundation recommends:

  • Making the Pell program a mandatory federal budget item;
  • Increasing the maximum grant faster than is currently scheduled while restoring summer grant support;
  • Limiting Pell eligibility to 125 percent of a program’s length;
  • Providing additional federal funding to public and private-nonprofit colleges that have a large proportion of low-income students and high graduation rates; and
  • Requiring four-year colleges that enroll a small percentage of low-income students and charge more than $10,000 per year (after financial aid) to match some of the Pell dollars they receive with need-based aid from institutional funds.

The plan, which is intended to be “budget neutral,” recommends that the Pell Grant changes be funded by:

  • Eliminating the American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning tuition tax credits, tax-advantaged savings plans for education, and the student loan interest deduction;
  • Ending the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program; and
  • Encouraging borrowers to refinance old student loans into direct lending.

The authors also recommend consolidating federal student loan programs into a single, “enhanced” Stafford Loan sys­tem as a means of simplifying the student loan system and reducing the potential for default. This would involve:

  • Automatically enrolling all federal student loan borrowers in income-based repayment plans;
  • Eliminating subsidized undergraduate loans;
  • Setting student loan interest rates via a fixed formula that adjusts to market conditions;
  • Ending the Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS loan programs;
  • Increasing borrowing limits slightly to $40,000 total for undergrads and $25,500 per year for grads; and
  • Limiting federal student loan eligibility to 150 percent of a program’s length.

Although some (if not many) of these ideas are politically unpopular, the authors argue that their recommendations must be implemented together in order to be effective. However, it seems more likely that Congress will cherry-pick specific suggestions to pursue or perhaps ignore the report’s policy proposals altogether. The Gates Foundation hopes their project will, at the very least, stimulate discussion about reforming financial aid.

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