On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions policy in its second consideration of a Fisher v. University of Texas appeal. As a reminder, the case stemmed from a lawsuit by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant to UT Austin who claimed she was unfairly rejected due to the university’s affirmative action admissions program. Since our last update, when the Supreme Court ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reconsider the case, the appellate court affirmed their decision in favor of UT, and Fisher again appealed that court’s decision to the Supreme Court. For additional background on this case, please see our previous two posts, found here and here.
The case was decided by an unusual 4-3 margin due to Justice Kagan’s recusal and the recent death of Justice Scalia. According to the NY Times, Justice Kennedy, who had never before voted to uphold an affirmative action plan, wrote for the majority that “…it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”
This decision marks the end of the Fisher case, but the debate over affirmative action in higher education carries on.
Stay tuned to the OPBlog for updates.
Over the past few months, income share agreements (ISAs) have received significant attention from political candidates, higher education advocates, and news sources. A new OPB brief takes a closer look at ISAs by:
- Exploring differences between and the history of privately funded ISAs and publicly funded ISAs (such as Pay It Forward).
- Comparing ISAs to federal income-based repayment (IBR) plans in terms of overall structure, years to repayment, monthly payments, and total cost over time.
- Identifying remaining issues regarding ISAs and their implementation.
- Offering alternatives like improving federal loan repayment options.
Please contact Jed Bradley if you have any questions.
The Obama administration has introduced a plan to bring back year-round Pell Grants and to create a $300 bonus for Pell recipients taking at least 15 credits a semester. Both elements of the plan are designed to incentivize students to graduate faster and accrue less debt in school. The plan would cost $2 billion over the next year, according to the Department of Education.
The year-round Pell Grant program was initially put in place by President Bush in 2008 but was cut in 2011 as a budget-saving measure. While the effort to reinstate the program will likely face significant Congressional opposition, there is some bipartisan support. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-LA), Chair of the Senate education committee, and Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado are cosponsoring legislation to reintroduce year-round Pell Grants. “We have long supported providing students a more flexible Pell Grant program and hope this is one of many areas Congress and the administration can work together to strengthen higher education,” a Republican education committee spokesman was quoted as saying in Inside Higher Ed. Even with this bipartisan support, however, the administration faces a difficult task in getting the legislation through a very budget-conscious Congress.
The $300 bonus, dubbed “15 to finish” by education non-profits, is also somewhat controversial, though the division is between a different set of stakeholders than the Pell Grant expansion. Many college completion non-profits support 15 to finish, saying that encouraging 15 credit semesters is an important tool in incentivizing Pell recipients to graduate on time. The plan has drawn criticism, however, from community college leaders and adult student advocates, who contend that 15 credits is too many for students who are busy working or who have come into higher education unprepared for college-level work.
See the UW Federal Relations department post for further information on the Pell Grant proposal.
Last week, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to extend the Federal Perkins Loan Program, which had expired in September.
The bill authorizes new undergraduate applicants to join the program through September 2017, but only if they have exhausted all other federal borrowing options first. New graduate students will not be able to join the program, but those who already have Perkins loans can continue to receive them through September 2016.
In the current academic year, over 3,200 University of Washington students have received approximately $12 million in Perkins loans. These low-income, high-need students, rely on Perkins loans to cover any financial gap that remains after grants and scholarships have been applied to their tuition.
More information on the Perkins extension is available at Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle.
A recent story in the LA Times, “UC seeks to boost Californians’ enrollment by 10,000 by 2018,” outlined the University of California’s plan to expand resident undergraduate enrollment at their nine undergraduate campuses. Like many U.S. public universities that have faced significant state divestment during the recession, the UC system has enrolled more nonresident students in recent years to help cover funding cuts and keep resident tuition increases to a minimum. To adjust this trend, the California Legislature recently increased its investment in the UC system by $25 million to partially fund the enrollment of 5,000 additional resident undergraduate students by no later than 2016-17. To pay for an additional 5,000 enrollments proposed by UC, system President Janet Napolitano plans to phase out aid for low-income non-resident students and request additional funding from the California Legislature. Napolitano was quoted as assuming the legislature would “continue to support access for California students.”
According to the article, UC officials are now “working through the logistics of housing, laboratory availability, and classroom sizes.” The increase in undergraduate students will also necessitate enrolling 600 more graduate students for instruction and lab support.
The University of Washington has faced similar financial pressures as a result of the recession, but remains committed to providing Washington students with affordable, quality higher education.
- The UW continues to fully fund Husky Promise, which covers, at minimum, tuition and fees for resident undergraduate students who qualify for the Pell Grant or State Need Grant.
- Since 2009-10, the UW has increased incoming enrollment of resident undergraduates by more than 1000 students at its three campuses.
- During the recession, the UW increased its contribution to institutional financial aid in order to maintain access for students with the most financial need.
- The percentage of Pell-eligible students at the UW rose from less than 20 percent in 2007-08 to 29 percent in 2014-15.
With over 188,000 undergraduate students in the UC system, the plan would increase their undergraduate enrollment by over 5 percent. To achieve a similar overall increase, the UW would need to add approximately 2000 students and would face significant barriers in doing so. Unlike the UC system, UW does not provide need-based aid for non-resident undergraduate students, and thus would not be able to cut that non-resident aid funding to pay for additional resident enrollment. Additionally, all three campuses are nearly at capacity without significant capital investment.
Undergraduates who graduated with student loan debt from four-year colleges in 2014 owed an average of $28,950, according to a recently released report by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). 69 percent of graduates have loan debt, the same figure as last year and slightly higher than it was in 2004 (65 percent). The average amount of debt per borrower is up 56 percent from 2004 – more than double the inflation rate over the same period – but only up 2 percent from 2013.
A number of factors have contributed to the rising student debt load over the past decade. States have decreased their investment in public higher education over the last ten years, causing students at public institutions to bear a higher percentage of the funding burden. Since 2004, the share of public higher education funding provided by states has dropped (from 62 percent to 51 percent) and the share paid by students and their families (in the form of tuition) has increased (from 32 percent to 43 percent).
In addition, the growth of Pell Grants has not kept up with rising costs. The TICAS report shows that between 2004 and 2012—the last year in which data is available—recipients of Pell Grants at public four-year colleges saw average cost of attendance rise by $7,400 and grant aid rise by just $2,900. At private, non-profit colleges the gap is even wider; costs rose by $14,400 and grants increased by $8,700.
Washington state is performing well with regard to student loans: only 58 percent of Washington bachelor’s degree recipients who graduated in 2014 had loans, and those who did had an average of $24,804, more than $4,000 below the national average. The University of Washington also looks good by these metrics: thanks in large part to the University’s commitment to institutional aid through programs such as Husky Promise, less than half of all UW undergraduates who graduated in 2014 had student debt and the average debt burden was $21,558, well below the state and national averages.
While Washington’s performance relative to its peers is laudable, student debt is still a major issue for many students. The TICAS report offers a series of proposals to mitigate the student debt load, among them doubling the size of Pell Grants, simplifying income-driven repayment plans, and improving student loan servicing to make it easier for students to pay back their loans. It is important that policymakers remain focused on reducing the student debt burden and continue working with institutions to make higher education accessible and affordable for all students during and after graduation.
 It’s important to note that borrowing rates and debt levels vary widely by state, college and sector.
 Because the federal government does not require colleges to report debt levels for their graduates, data in the TICAS report is based on voluntary reporting by institutions. Hardly any for-profit colleges voluntarily report their graduates’ average debt, so this year’s debt figures are for public and nonprofit colleges only.
The Education Department’s (ED) final “gainful employment rule,” which was released yesterday, will hold vocational programs accountable to just one of the two outcome metrics that were proposed in the March draft rule. Cohort default rates (CDRs) were eliminated from the legislation, meaning that debt-to-earnings ratios will be the only criteria upon which individual career education programs are evaluated to determine federal aid eligibility.
Community colleges had advocated for the change on the grounds that a relatively small number of their students take out federal loans and, thus, cohort default rates are “materially and statistically unrepresentative of all the students in a program.”
Student and consumer advocates, however, have contended that the change weakens the rule and doesn’t do enough to protect students and taxpayers. Pauline Abernathy – Vice President for The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), a consumer advocacy group – issued a written statement yesterday saying:
“We and more than 50 student, civil rights, veterans, consumer, and education organizations urged the Obama Administration to strengthen its draft gainful employment regulation, but instead this final regulation is even weaker. The final rule also does not provide any financial relief to students who enroll in programs that lose eligibility; lets poorly performing programs enroll increasing numbers of students, right up to the day the programs lose eligibility; and even passes programs in which every student drops out with heavy debts they cannot pay down.”
For-profit colleges weren’t pleased with the outcome either, arguing that the legislation does nothing to fix a proposal they see as being “fundamentally flawed.”
Arne Duncan, the education secretary, estimates that 1,400 programs—99 percent of which are at for-profit colleges—will fail the rule in the first year. However, that number is 500 less than it would have been under the March version of the rule. Unfortunately, of those 500 programs, 15 are ones where students are more likely to default than they are to graduate. See the article by TICAS for more information.
Since programs will only become ineligible for federal aid after they fail the debt-to-earnings tests twice in a three-year period or are “in the zone” for four consecutive years, institutions will not face penalties for at least three more years. Therefore, it is possible that the gainful employment rule will be revised yet again before its effects are truly felt.
It will soon be easier for students and parents with adverse credit histories to qualify for federal PLUS loans. Under new the Education Department’s (ED’s) new rules – which were released on Wednesday and are expected to take effect in March – ED will review only two years (rather than five) of a prospective borrower’s credit history to determine loan eligibility, and will excuse up to $2,085 in certain types of delinquent debt when running initial credit checks.
ED agreed to revisit the rules following pressure from many colleges and families who were angered after ED tightened the PLUS loan standards in 2011. The 2011 changes resulted in thousands of sudden loan denials and, consequently, enrollment declines and revenue losses at some institutions. According to Inside Higher Ed, department officials expect that the new standards will allow an additional 370,000 applicants to pass the initial credit check for PLUS loans.
Representative Chaka Fattah – Pennsylvania Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Education Task Force – lauded the new standards; however others connected with historically black colleges have criticized ED for not moving quickly enough. Meanwhile, some policy analysts and consumer advocates argue that ability-to-pay criteria are necessary to prevent borrowers from being saddled with unmanageable debt, and that the new rules don’t do enough to safeguard against default.
If defaulting becomes an issue as a result of the new standards, the silver lining is policymakers will at least know about it and, hopefully, be able to do something. As part of ED’s changes to the PLUS program, the department will begin calculating and publishing annual cohort default rates for institutions receiving PLUS loans. That information should help illuminate whether borrowers are getting in over their heads.
Ultimately though, as EdCentral points out:
“The Department must do a better job reaching out to parents and helping them understand the terms and conditions of their loans, including the ability to repay their loan as a percent of their income if they consolidate into a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan. Better counseling won’t solve all the issues with the PLUS loan program. But it’s a start until we can ensure PLUS loans are a safe product for families and we can improve access to better aid options like grants for low-income families.”
 ED currently only calculates cohort default rates for colleges that receive Stafford loans.
On Monday, Kaplan University launched “Open College” which is intended to help adult students earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Professional Studies by offering credit for a combination of competency-based course assessments, experiential learning, and external exams (AP, IB, CLEP, DSSTs, etc.). Open College will include free online courses and mentoring to help prospective students identify and organize prior experience that could qualify for college credit. Once students enroll and have their prior skills assessed for credit, they will pay a subscription fee of $195 per month, an assessment fee of $100 per each of the remaining 35 “course equivalents” needed to earn a degree, and a $371-per-credit fee for a final six-credit capstone course.
According to The Chronicle:
“A student entering with no credits who pursued the program for 48 straight months could earn a bachelor’s degree for about $15,000. Students who earned credits based on their prior experience would end up paying less than that. Officials expect that such students would typically enroll with about 60 credits, take 24 to 30 months to complete a degree, and pay about $9,500.”
Kaplan’s administration sees Open College as the newest candidate in the hunt to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree and as a new, flexible way for adults to advance their career. While Open College’s structure and pricing may work well for some students, a few things should be considered before rushing to enroll in Open College.
First, students at Open College will receive little, if any, financial aid. Open College’s website says it will not participate in federal student aid programs; it also gives no indication that students will be eligible for state financial aid or that it will offer any form of institutional aid. Therefore, although comparisons are difficult and potentially problematic, it’s worth noting that in 2013-14, resident students at public four-year institutions paid an average of $3,120 in annual net tuition and fees (published tuition and fees less grant and aid scholarship from federal, state or institutional sources). If we assume, as Kaplan did, that a student entering with no credits would take 48 months to earn a degree and that tuition and fees would not increase during those four years, then a resident student who enters a public four-year with no previous credits would pay roughly $12,480 in tuition and fees to earn a four-year degree, compared to a similar student at Open College who would pay $15,000. Of course, this total does not consider the cost of rent or room and board, which can be very expensive; but neither does Open College’s estimate, even though a student earning a degree through their program would presumably still be spending money to eat and live while earning a degree.
Second, employer doubts about the quality of an online degree may impact graduates’ employability. According to the results of two surveys released last fall, only 41 percent of hiring managers believe that online programs are of the same quality as traditional, in-person programs.
The Equity Line, among others, highlights how the recent NYT rankings of colleges by enrollment of Pell Grant recipients is a nice gesture, but lacking in many ways. The University of Washington (and most public institutions!) was not evaluated as part of the effort, though one-quarter of its undergraduate population received Pell Grant funding last year.
Equity Line contributor Jose Luis Santos notes that, “…the rankings only capture a tiny number of undergraduates enrolled in four-year colleges who receive Pell Grants (just 1.6 percent!), leaving out more than 4.2 million students. This distorts the picture of low-income enrollment, and it distracts the public and policymakers from the real problems with higher education access and success.”
US News & World Report released its much anticipated set of annual rankings this week; the UW fared better this year. Additional analysis about the UW’s position in US News will be posted to the blog as it becomes available.
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