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, Moody’s Investors Service issued a negative short-term outlook for the entire sector of higher education based on its conclusion that every traditional revenue source for even the most elite colleges and universities is under pressure. That pressure, according to the report, is the result of nation-wide economic, technological and public opinion shifts, which are largely beyond institutions’ control.
The outlook report, released annually, articulates the fundamental credit conditions that Moody’s expects higher education will face during the next 12 to 18 months. For the last two years, Moody’s gave elite colleges and research universities a stable forecast; but this year, the following factors contributed to a negative outlook for the entire industry:
Struggling Revenue Sources:
- State appropriations are unlikely to increase meaningfully due to weak economic recovery.
- Federal spending on research and student aid could be truncated in response to the nation’s fiscal concerns.
- Tuition revenue continues to be suppressed by low family incomes and public/political pressure to keep prices down.
- Endowment returns are vulnerable to any economic volatility that could stem from federal tax and budget decisions.
- Donations are not expected to increase and could face pressure as Congress evaluates associated tax deductions.
- Financial diversity is no longer helpful as all revenue streams are strained.
- Student debt and loan default rates have increased and thus challenged the perceived value of a degree.
- High school graduates are declining in number.
- Public and political scrutiny of efficiency and degree value could add to institutions’ list of regulatory requirements.
- New technologies such as online learning and MOOCs could provide new revenue opportunities, but could also undermine traditional higher ed models.
Moody’s analysts warn that revenue streams will never rebound to post-2008 levels and leaders in higher education will need to adapt by thinking strategically and adjusting their operations.
But not all is gloom and doom. Although Moody’s gave higher education a negative outlook, most of the country’s top colleges and universities still hold the strong credit rankings. The UW, for one, continues to maintain a Aaa credit rating—the highest offered by Moody’s. Additionally, the report stressed that the intrinsic value of and demand for higher education remains stable.
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.”
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.
The Delta Cost Project has published its latest Trends in College Spending report. This year’s version reports on revenue and spending trends in higher education from 1999 to 2009, the latest year of IPEDS data available at this time. As such, this version includes the first year of the recession’s impact on higher education finances.
Overall, the report confirms several already noted trends:
- The resource gap between public and private institutions continues to grow, and is now so wide that competition between the sectors is virtually impossible (see Figure 22 on page 43 of the report linked above for a stark depiction).
- At public institutions, the share of education related spending derived from tuition revenue has increased dramatically, surpassing the contribution from state appropriations at a number of universities, including the UW.
- At public institutions, tuition increases in 2009 represented cost shifting from the public to the student and not increases in institutional spending.
- At public institutions, administrative and maintenance spending remained flat or declined while spending on instruction went up slightly, indicating that, unlike previous recessions, institutions are making cuts more strategically to help protect the core academic mission.
- Whether from improved retention or decreased extraneous course-taking, student credit hours per degree appear to have decreased between 2002 and 2009, which is one measurement of efficiency.
- At public institutions, faculty salaries have been very flat as the cost of benefits have, on average, risen by over 5 percent per year, now accounting for almost 1/4th of all compensation costs.
Overall, this report does a great job of making it clear that the majority of students attend relatively affordable, cost-effective public institutions in the United States, even though a small number of pricey private institutions dominate the public perception. It also places revenue and expenditures in the context of student enrollment and the spectrum of university activities.
One issue we have consistently had with this report is the calculation of what is called the ‘subsidy’, an attempt to measure overall cost by combining various forms of institutional revenue with state appropriations and contrasting that with tuition revenue to determine what portion of overall cost is paid by the student and what portion is subsidized for the student. Our concerns with this measure were detailed in an earlier blog post and brief, if you are interested.
A new State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) report indicates that institutions of higher education have increased their educational efficiency by decreasing their staff-to-student ratio since 2001. Using three IPEDS data surveys—the Fall Staff survey, 12-month Enrollment survey, and Institutional Characteristics survey—it was calculated that, although both enrollment and staffing have increased between 2001 and 2009, staffing has increased at a far slower rate. At research universities with very high research activity, like the University of Washington, staff levels increased only 6 percent while student enrollment increased by 19 percent. This suggests that higher education institutions have found ways to educate more students with fewer staff. Further findings included:
- Clerical, secretarial, technical, service, maintenance and crafts staff levels declined steadily over the 8-year period (2001-2009)
- Faculty, graduate, and other professional staff levels fluctuated more, but tended to increase, showing that universities focused on ensuring instructional quality to keep pace with higher student enrollment
- Executive and administrative staff levels stayed constant
- For very high activity research institutions, both full- and part-time employment per 100 student FTE declined (by 12 and 8 percent, respectively)
Altogether, universities with very high research activity and large hospitals like the UW employed around 40 staff per 100 student FTE in 2009, down from 45 in 2001. These data indicate that universities have been innovative in their response to steadily increasing enrollment by focusing staff resources on instruction and streamlining administrative and clerical processes. For more information, check out other UW efficiency initiatives or read the full SHEEO report.
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.
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