Office of Planning and Budgeting

The results of two new surveys released Tuesday reveal some of America’s views on both the future of higher education as well as its role in producing desirable outcomes, particularly career-ready graduates. Under Northeastern University’s sponsorship, FTI Consulting surveyed 263 hiring managers in July as well as 1,000 adult Americans in August.  Here are some of their findings: 

  • Americans continue to see the value in higher education, but are concerned that the system does not adequately prepare graduates for their careers. Respondents ranked “level of education” as the most important factor in determining a job candidate’s success; yet, 62 percent said colleges currently do only a fair to poor job of preparing graduates for the workforce. That said, 79 percent believe their own college education prepared them well.
  • Americans are conflicted about who has the greatest responsibility to train recent graduates for the workplace: employers (36 percent), colleges/universities (29 percent) or the graduates themselves (35 percent). When Americans were asked why U.S. companies are struggling to find good job candidates, the most common response was that companies are not investing enough in training new hires. However, 87 percent of Americans assert that higher education must change in order to maintain an internationally competitive workforce.
  • Americans and business leaders value “soft” skills, like problem-solving and communication, over “hard” industry-specific skills. Most Americans (65 percent) and business leaders (73 percent) believe that, for people on the job market, “being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry experience because job-specific skills can be learned at work.”
  • Americans and business leaders agree that experiential learning is highly valuable to students’ careers. Nearly all Americans (89 percent) and business leaders (74 percent) believe that students are more successful in their careers if they have work experience from a field-related internship or job. Both groups agree the most important step the U.S. can take to better prepare colleges students is to broaden the professional work programs available to them.
  • Although most Americans (67 percent) think colleges should adopt new technologies and interactive teaching methods, they have doubts about MOOCs and online degrees. Less than 30 percent of Americans and business leaders believe MOOCs are of the same quality as in-person courses, and only 37 percent of Americans would consider completing a postsecondary degree solely online. However, about half of all respondents believe MOOCs will transform education in the US and that online degrees will be equally accepted by employers within 5 to 7 years.

My take-away from all this, to summarize, is:  Americans and business leaders believe that people on the job market need a college education, some professional work experience, and a well-rounded skill-set and in order to succeed. However, they also believe that colleges, businesses, and the government must play a role in helping students garner those qualifications.

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.

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.

As a recent post discussed, if you attend college, you are more likely to earn more money. But, as you might imagine, the financial value of higher education depends on what program you choose and where.

Information on the annual earnings of students from different programs and institutions is exactly what Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida, hope to provide. Their recently-introduced “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” proposes creating a state-based, individual-level data system linking the average costs and graduation rates of specific programs and institutions to their graduates’ accrued debt and annual earnings.

Although useful, Senator Wyden acknowledged that such information is limited and that focusing on financial indicators alone could undermine the importance of liberal arts—whose graduates may not earn large salaries right after college. He stated that the bill’s intention is “to empower people to make choices.” However, “people” include not just students, but policy makers—such as Florida’s Governor Rick Scott who sparked controversy last October when he asserted that state money should go to job-oriented fields, rather than fields like anthropology which, he said, do not serve the state’s vital interest.

Regardless of the bill’s success, about half of the states already have the ability to link postsecondary academic records with labor data. And some, such as Tennessee, have already done so. Here in Washington, the Education Research and Data Center is in the process of connecting certain employment and enrollment data for schools, such as the UW, to analyze in the coming months.

All this begs the question: Is college chiefly for personal economic gain?

A recent report by the College Board highlights both the financial and nonfinancial payoffs of college. Additionally, David A. Reidy, head of the philosophy department at University of Tennessee Knoxville, stated in a recent Chronicle article that four-year degrees, particularly in liberal-arts, are not solely for job training. “The success of the American democratic experiment depends significantly on a broadly educated citizenry, capable of critical thinking, cultural understanding, moral analysis and argument,” he wrote. Philosophy and other core disciplines help nurture such a citizenry, he continued, “And the value there is incalculable.”

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.

In an effort to lower instructional costs and increase the quality of class materials in community colleges, President Obama has started a program to promote the creation and use of open educational resources (OERs). OERs are defined as “high-quality” educational materials, such as books, lectures, exams, study guides, and syllabi, which are published under a Creative Commons license and can be freely accessed on the Web. The material can be presented as an entire course, or it can be broken up into individual lessons or tutorials.

The Department of Education has hired Hal Plotkin, a prominent journalist and community college trustee, to expand the prevalence and recognition of OERs worldwide with $2 billion of government funds.

MIT and Carnegie-Mellon each pioneered open courseware programs a decade ago, in order to make their educational materials more accessible to those outside the university. Since then, new services like Khan Academy, a tutorial website, and iTunes U, a collection of free lectures from prestigious institutions, have steadily gained recognition and importance.

Plotkin hopes that the additional funding for OERs will help community colleges offer courses and class materials at a lower cost and improve accessibility for non-traditional students. Federal support for OERs also focuses resources and attention on an e-learning system infrastructure. Plotkin intends to continue the growth and recognition of OERs in order to benefit thousands of interested learners.

The OER movement is gaining ground in Washington State, as well. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges more than $6 million dollars to launch the Washington State Student Completion Initiative. Part of this money will go towards creating an Open Course Library of over 80 high-demand introductory courses at Washington community and technical colleges intended to reduce educational materials costs and encourage free access to common course packs, online lectures, and library materials.

To read more about OERs and the specific program Plotkin manages, check out the Kevin Carey’s summary of the new policy and Plotkin’s own guidebook called “Free to Learn.”

As state legislative season wears on, here is an update on some of the efforts in other states to achieve greater financial and regulatory freedom for public higher education institutions facing another year of steep budget cuts.

  • Virginia: The legislature passed the Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011. For details on the major aims of this legislation, see our earlier post. The State Council of Higher Education for Virgina (SCHEV) provides an overview of how the final bill differs from the original bill, including, among other things, the addition of a goal to recognize the unique missions and contributions of different institutions.The Act now awaits the signature of the Governor, who proposed the initial bill.
  • New York:  The Legislature passed a budget that did not include provisions contained in the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act proposed by the SUNY system. The Act sought increased autonomy from state processes and freedom in managing institutional resources, especially in light of significant budget cuts since 2008. The state not only decided to include none of the flexibility measures, but hit the system with another $210 million in cuts. Having lost 30 percent of its state funding in three years, this huge network of over 60 campuses is determined to continue fighting to maintain access and quality.
  • Wisconsin: The New Badger Partnership proposed by UW Madison continues to be controversial in Wisconsin. Feeling left behind by the proposal to ‘set free’ the flagship institution, the UW System Regents have endorsed their own proposal, the Wisconsin Idea Partnership, which includes freedoms and flexibilities for all system campuses. The Legislature will consider both proposals in the coming month.
  • Oregon: University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere has made an agreement with Governor John Kitzhaber to put the University’s ‘New Partnership’ legislation on hold for a year in favor of supporting passage of the Governor’s legislation, which creates an independent public university system in place of treating each institution as a  state agency. In exchange, the Governor has signaled an intention to support the University of Oregon’s New Partnership proposal for greater autonomy, including a new financing structure that replaces annual state operating support with a public endowment, in the 2012 Legislative session.

Note that the Washington State Legislature is also currently considering a number of proposals, both large and small, that might lead to regulatory relief and increased autonomy of varying types for the UW. Check out the bills that the UW ‘strongly supports’ and ‘supports’ in the BillTracker for more information on some of these bills.

Virginia’s Governor, Robert McConnell, endorsed all of the recommendations made by the Higher Education Commission he created last year to explore policy options for higher education reform. The resulting Virginia Higher Education Act of 2011 has moved quickly through both the House and Senate and may soon be on its way to the Governor. The bill provides $50 million in new funding for higher education institutions in Virginia, a UW Global Challenge State peer, as a ‘downpayment’ on the lofty reform goals outlined by the bill, including:

  • Producing 100,000 additional degrees over the next 15 years.
  • Providing incentives to increase enrollment of Virginia residents by creating target resident enrollment goals for institutions.
  • Creating incentives for improving retention, graduation, and time-to-degree.
  • Crafting new performance agreements focused on policy outcomes.
  • Enhancing efficiency by increasing institutional managerial autonomy.
  • Creating a higher education rainy day fund for use in economic crisis.
  • Establishing objective, peer-based funding goals.
  • Increasing state support and reducing reliance on tuition revenue.
  • Restoring state aid for students attending non-public Virginia colleges.
  • Increasing state need-based aid for low and middle income students.
  • Increasing year-round use of physical and instructional resources.
  • Increasing use of technology in the classroom, and increasing online course offerings.
  • Increasing enrollment in dual credit programs to shorten time-to-degree.
  • Creating public/private partnerships to increase STEM degree attainment, and facilitate commercialization.
  • Creating a catalog of R&D assets and activities so that the state can align investments with existing strengths/activities.
  • Creating an emerging technologies fund to recruit faculty, purchase equipment and provide seed funding.

The Washington State legislature is considering its own Higher Education Funding Task Force bill right now. Make sure to follow its progress via our UW BillTracker (bill number 5717).

In A New Funding Paradigm for Higher Education, the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) puts the Great Recession into context and discusses the cyclical nature of state funding for higher education, which has historically followed a pattern of major cuts in poor economic periods followed by generous reinvestment in good times.

Considering the generally bleak assessment of the speed of economic recovery for state budgets, NASBO asserts that this boom and bust funding pattern may finally be broken. Many do not expect state funding for public higher education to return to previous levels, and this has states, institutions, and other stakeholders wondering what a ‘new normal’ may look like.

Many institutions think that at least part of the answer lies in seeking greater autonomy from state processes and requirements, and more flexibility in managing institutional resources. Whatever the outcomes, many are hoping that achieving a more stable and predictable funding model might keep public higher education on solid ground as we move toward an uncertain future.

Last summer, Governor Gregoire created a Higher Education Task force, comprising both public and private leaders, and charged them with proposing a new funding strategy for public higher education, as well as new ideas for increasing institutional accountability. The Task Force released its report yesterday, January 3rd, recommending three major reforms to higher education policy in Washington State.

First, the group suggested that tuition setting authority be given to the universities to help make up for budget cuts from the legislature. Based on their proposal, the institutions would use a formula to determine appropriate tuition rates, taking into account state appropriations, tuition at peer institutions, and enrollment levels.

Second, the Task Force proposed the creation of a Washington Pledge Scholarship Program, which would be funded by private donors. They hope the fund would reach $ 1 billion by the end of the decade. Corporations would receive a tax credit for donating, although that benefit would not kick in until overall tax revenue returned to 2008 levels.

Third, they recommended that the state give cash incentives to universities that meet certain degree production targets. In addition, they encourage universities to make plans to reach retention goals set forth by the state.

Finally, the Task Force listed other money-saving strategies, such as including more online introductory-level classes, developing three-year degrees, giving more credit for college-level work done in high school and at other institutions, and eliminating underused degree programs.

Make sure to check the State Relations blog for a round-up of some of the local press coverage relating to this report.

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