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.
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.
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.
Last week, the National Commission of Higher Education published an open letter calling on “every college and university president and chancellor to make retention and completion a critical campus priority” and asserting that such efforts are “an economic and moral imperative.” Six higher-ed associations assembled the Commission in 2011 at President Obama’s request. The 18 college presidents that form the Commission’s membership come from every sector, except for-profits, and were tasked with investigating strategies that individual schools can use to improve graduation rates.
The NY Times quotes Dr. E. Gordon Gee, chairman of the Commission, as saying, “We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate.” Although enrollment rates are strong, nearly half of all college students nationwide fail to earn a degree within six years (79 percent of
entering freshman graduate from the UW within six years).
Completion efforts should take into consideration the changing face of higher ed: first-generation, mid-career, part-time, and veteran students are an ever-increasing share of the nation’s student body. The report notes that “adult learners are far less likely than their traditional-age peers to complete their degrees” and will need flexible schedules, more financial assistance, and targeted student services in order to succeed.
Other recommendations from the report include:
- Narrowing course options so that students prioritize completion;
- Putting someone in charge of overseeing completion efforts; and
- Giving credit for previous learning.
The Commission asks colleges to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions and to eschew inflating their graduation rates by admitting only the best-prepared, lowest-risk students and/or by making it easier for students to pass.
The report acknowledges, however, that colleges need assistance in these completion endeavors, saying, “Disinvestment in higher education is terribly damaging and undermines efforts to expand and enhance academic and support services for students.”
The Commission believes the report will trigger a sense of urgency among leaders (academic or otherwise) and, hopefully, meaningful action.
Dartmouth will stop granting college credit for students with high AP test scores beginning with the class of 2018, which will enter in the Fall of 2014. Currently, Dartmouth students with scores of four or five (out of five) on an AP test can have certain lower-level courses waived, earn placement into higher-level courses, or receive credit toward their degrees. When the new policy takes effect, the first two of options will still be available, but students will not be able to earn credits. Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction proposed the change in policy and the faculty passed it with an “overwhelming majority,” according to Inside Higher Ed. However, faculty members say they “still value AP courses – just not as a replacement for a college classroom.”
Dartmouth changed the policy after its psychology department performed an experiment to assess the college-level competence of top AP scorers. Students who had earned a five on the AP psychology test were asked to take a placement exam based on the final for intro psychology; 90 percent of those students failed, according to the college. The researchers also found that the students who failed and then chose to take intro psychology did not perform better than their peers who had never taken AP psychology or who had scored less than a five. These results challenge those of an independed study published by College Board. College Board officials say they question Dartmouth’s results and believe the college has an obligation to share the details of its experiment.
There are concerns that the college’s change in policy will discourage high school students from accepting the challenge of an AP course and/or could keep students on campus longer than they would if college credit were granted for their scores. Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction plans to review the policy in three years.
In Washington, RCW 28B.10.053 requires that institutes of higher education “recognize the equivalencies of at least one year of course credit and maximize the application of the credits toward lower division general education requirements that can be earned through successfully demonstrating proficiency on examinations, including but not limited to advanced placement and international baccalaureate examinations.”
The Wisconsin Education Approval Board, which oversees all for-profit colleges located in the state and any online-learning programs offered to its residents, may require that those institutions achieve specific performance standards in order to operate within Wisconsin. Specifically, that board is proposing to require that at least 60 percent of a college’s students complete their studies within a certain time-frame and at least 60 percent of its graduates have jobs. Public universities and private nonprofit colleges are not under the board’s jurisdiction and would therefore be exempt from the requirements.
The board already collects and publishes data on its institutions. According to those reports, average completion rates fell from 82 to 59 percent over the last six years and the percentage of graduates who were employed during a given year dropped from 44 to 22 percent (in the same time frame).
The Chronicle reports that the board is basing its standards on what they believe “Wisconsin consumers would find ethical, responsible, and acceptable for institutions choosing to enroll them.” However, for-profit colleges have already submitted letters to the board arguing that the proposed standards are “arbitrary and should not be broadly applied to a diverse set of programs, which often enroll underserved populations.”
While the federal government’s “gainful employment” rule is similar to Wisconsin’s proposal, it is unusual to see a state attempt this type of regulatory system. Some states have increased their requirements for online and for-profit institutions—but Wisconsin’s proposal is especially aggressive. For-profits that wish to operate in Washington must receive authorization from the Washington Student Achievement Council, which considers institutions; “financial stability, business practices, academic programs, and faculty qualifications”—but does not yet hold them to specific graduation or employment standards.
On Wednesday, Wisconsin’s board voted unanimously to postpone a final decision until a team made of board members, representatives from colleges and universities, and State legislators can review the proposal more thoroughly. The team is scheduled to make recommendations to the board in June of 2013.
Although other nations continue to outperform the U.S. in terms of educational attainment, the Pew Research Center reported yesterday that record numbers of young Americans are attending and completing college. Of Americans aged 25 to 29 in 2012, 33 percent have completed at least a bachelor’s degree and 63 percent have completed some college—up from 17 and 34 percent respectively in 1971.
The NY Times noted that this is welcome news following the “education reversal” of the early 2000s, when the percentage of young Americans (ages 25 to 29) earning bachelor’s degrees leveled off and was surpassed by the share of “prime age adults” (ages 45 to 64) receiving degrees. Now, this trend “has vanished or been reversed by recent improvements in the education attainment of young adults,” according to the report.
The authors posit that more young Americans may have recently pursued (and earned) degrees in higher education as a means of weathering the job drought caused by the 2007-09 Great Recession. However, the report acknowledges that the portion of young adults attending and completing college has generally increased since 1980. This long-term trend it attributes to improved public opinions regarding the importance of a college education. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, 75 percent of Americans agreed that, in order to get ahead in life, a college education is necessary (up from only 36 percent in 1978).
Unfortunately, the fact remains that other countries are not only achieving higher levels educational attainment than the U.S., their rate of improvement outpaces ours. If the U.S. is to reclaim its title as a global leader in higher education, we will need greater gains than this in the coming years.
One of several recent Pell Grant changes has made it harder for some students to finish school and earn a degree, according to Inside Higher Ed. Effective July 1st this year, the federal government decreased the duration of Pell eligibility from 18 semesters to 12 semesters as a means of both cutting costs and incentivizing students to graduate on time. While most students take less than 12 semesters to earn their bachelor’s degree, existing Pell recipients (who expected to receive 18 semesters of eligibility) were not grandfathered in when the changes took place.
Of the estimated 62,000 students affected by the change, colleges say the hardest hit were transfer students and students who have attended some college, but never earned a degree. More specifically, many impacted students seem to be those who:
- Left school before graduating, but have returned to complete their degree;
- Transferred, or “swirled,” between multiple schools—a growing trend in higher education;
- Enrolled with a for-profit institution, but transferred elsewhere before graduating; and/or
- Changed programs multiple times within the same school.
According to an “informal tally” by the California State University system, about 6,100 of the system’s students (4 percent) lost Pell Grant eligibility because of the new 12-semester limit.
Since some students who lose eligibility may not be able to afford to continue their education and earn a degree, this change could conflict with the government’s emphasis on improving graduation rates and increasing the number of degree-holders. However, as Congress gears up to deal with impending sequester cuts, the financial benefits of these types of tough decisions are increasingly likely to outweigh the nonfinancial costs.
A recent Insider Higher Education article describes the inventive deals that a handful of public universities are pursuing in an effort to keep tuition rates from rising. By offering tuition freezes in exchange for either (1) increased state funding or (2) individual student efforts to graduate on time, universities hope to meet public demands to stabilize tuition and also ease the financial burden of doing so.
1. Public institutions can afford tuition freezes if states pick up the slack. On several occasions, the University System of Maryland has successfully encouraged state lawmakers to “buy down” potential tuition increases. And just last Friday, the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents accepted a proposal to freeze undergraduate resident tuition if the state provides an additional $42.6 million over the coming two years. This approach has been successful in some states, but the article mentions a major problem: “many states simply don’t have the money or the political will to invest in education at the moment.” However, even when schools do not expect to receive more state support, these proposals may at least spark conversations about the crucial linkage between falling state appropriations and rising tuition rates.
2. Benefits of better on-time graduation rates may be enough to offset costs of tuition freezes. Getting more students to graduate sooner can improve a university’s ranking, lower its students’ average debt, and make room for more incoming students. For some schools, this is enough incentive to provide tuition freezes in a targeted manner. Last week, leaders of the Indiana University system offered to freeze tuition for students who have earned 60 credits by the end of their sophomore year and are, therefore, on track to graduate within four years. Additionally, UT-Austin will pilot a program next year that would award students who receive Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans with $1,000 of loan forgiveness for each semester they stay on pace to graduate in four years. UT-Austin’s Director of Student Financial Services said the program could save students up to $12,000 over the course of their education.
As public institutions continue to face dwindling state appropriations and increased pressure to stabilize tuition, we may see more of these innovative proposals.
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Released last week by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, Beyond Need and Merit: Strengthening State Grant Programs describes the scope and type of state grant programs across the US, and provides recommendations for improvement. Such programs currently provide over $9 billion in aid to students each year and comprise, on average, approximately 12 percent of total state funding for higher education. However, they vary widely in number, complexity, eligibility criteria, grant amounts, and efficacy.
Average annual tuition at a public four-year institution in the US is just over $7,000, and the average state grant disbursed to students ranges from $44 in Alaska to over $1,700 in Sourth Carolina (averaging $627 across all states). While 73 percent of all such aid is disbursed based primarily on financial circumstances, many states have adopted large, merit-based programs in recent years that direct grants to non-needy students. For example, the report notes that in Louisiana, where the average annual household income is $45,000, 45 percent of total state grant funds went to students from households with income above $80,000.
Ultimately, the report focuses on ways to potentially streamline state grant programs and better target their resources to those students who need them most in order to increase the impact on both college access and completion. Major recommendations include:
- Focus grants on students with financial need, who have been shown by research to be most postively affected by grant aid.
- Simplify grant programs to the extent possible while still being able to target resources to needy students. Straightforward applications, early knowledge of awards, and effective net-price calculators all have a positive impact on application and enrollment rates for students with financial need.
- Consolidate multiple programs where possible, including converting state required tuition set-asides to state grants to avoid the appearance that the students are subsidizing needy students instead of the state.
- Create financial incentives for students while they are enrolled by requiring minimum but attainable grades and steady progress toward completion.
- Consider targeting resources to non-traditional students, including those who are older, part-time, and placebound.
- When resources are constrained, ration grant aid in a way that is clear and predictable for students.
- Consider state grant aid incentives in concert with federal and institutional aid to ensure that programs are not operating at cross purposes.
- Evaluate existing programs as well as test and evaluate new approaches.
Although not discussed much in the report, Washington State has one of the most generous state grant programs in the nation, even though it currently does not have enough funds to accomodate all qualified students. 98 percent of Washington grant funds are awarded based on student financial need and the average grant per student is nearly $900, compared to the national average of $627. Washington State Need Grant funding and policy has and will continue to be key to maintaining college affordability as scarce resources have necessitated rising tuition while household incomes are stagnant. This report provides some useful guidelines for ensuring that taxpayers receive the best return for each dollar invested in student success.
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