Office of Planning and Budgeting

Check out Christy Gullion’s latest post about a possible to deal to avoid the federal fiscal cliff.

The NY Times reports that although the federal government’s recently-expanded income-based repayment program is more affordable for some students, it may come with a hefty, and unexpected tax burden. The federal government will generally forgive whatever loans are left after 10 to 25 years of income-based payments; however, unless you attend a program for teachers or take a job in public service, you will have to pay income taxes on that forgiven debt. For someone who attended graduate or professional school and racked up six-figures of debt, the tax could easily be five-figures and, perhaps most worrisome, would be due immediately.

So, how many people could have to face this formidable tax and what would it amount to for the average borrower? The Education Department estimates that approximately two million people had applied for income-based repayment as of Oct. 31. About 1.3 million of those applicants qualified for reduced payment, another 440,000 applications were still pending. According to the article, “400,000 borrowers from 2012 through 2021, each with a beginning average loan balance of about $39,500, would each eventually receive loan forgiveness of about $41,000.” The amount forgiven can be larger than the original balance because of accrued interest payments. Depending on your tax bracket, the federal tax on $41,000 of forgiven loans could amount to over $10,000 and, if you live in a state with income taxes, you’d need to deal with those as well.

That said, since $41,000 is more than double what is given to the average Pell recipient over four-years, a $10,000 tax payment could be considered fair. The New America Foundation and others have argued that the new repayment program provides only marginal benefits to low-income borrowers, but “generous benefits to borrowers with higher federal loan balances” who have the potential to earn high incomes later on. As The Quick and the Ed notes, someone who earns $400,000 at the high-point of their career may still receive over $80,000 in loan forgiveness. In the latter situation, a large, lump-sum tax payment is likely very fair.

The article provides some useful resources for those who are participating in the income-based repayment plan and those who are considering it, including:

Here is a quick look at some recent happenings in the world of higher education:

  • The College Scorecard confuses students and lacks desired information, says a report released today by the Center for American Progress (CAP).  The College Scorecard, which President Obama proposed last February, is an online tool to help students compare colleges’ costs, completion rates, average student-loan debt, and more.  The CAP asked focus groups of college-bound high-school students for their opinions on the scorecard’s design, content, and overall effectiveness. Student responses indicated that they did not understand the scorecard’s purpose; they would like the ability to customize the scorecard according to their interests; they want more information on student-loan debt; and they would prefer seeing four-year graduation rates, rather than six-year rates. The CAP report includes recommendations for improving the readability and usability of not just the scorecard, but of government disclosures in general.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives passed the STEM Jobs Act on Friday by a 245 to 139 vote. The bill would eliminate the “diversity visa program,” which currently distributes 55,000 visas per year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.  Those visas would instead go to foreign graduates from U.S. universities who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Proponents of the Republican-backed bill say it would keep “highly trained, in-demand” workers in the U.S., boosting the nation’s economy and preserving its global competitiveness. While the White House and most Democrats support the expansion of STEM visas, they oppose the bill’s attempt to eliminate the diversity visa program. Consequently, the measure is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate.
  • The overlapping agendas of Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin governors could signal a new Republican approach to higher education policy, says Inside Higher Ed. The three governors agree on cost-cutting strategies such as requiring some colleges to offer $10,000 bachelor’s degrees; limiting tuition increases at flagship institutions; linking institutions’ graduation rates to state appropriations; and letting performance indicators, such as student evaluations, determine faculty salaries.  Although the governors’ proposed reforms appeal to some voters, “actions taken by all three have been sharply criticized not only by faculty members and higher education leaders in their states, but also by national leaders, who view the erosion of state funding and increased restrictions on what institutions can do a breach of the traditional relationship between state lawmakers and public colleges and universities.”

Here are a few noteworthy headlines from the past few days of higher education news:

  • History professors at the University of Florida are fighting a proposed differential tuition strategy that would hold tuition rates stable for “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand” degree programs for at least three years.  Most STEM degrees made the list of majors recommended for this tuition freeze, while core Humanities disciplines (such as history) did not.  The Governor-commissioned task force responsible for the proposal said, “The theory is that students in ‘non-strategic majors,’ by paying higher tuition, will help subsidize students in the ‘strategic’ majors, thus creating a greater demand for the targeted programs and more graduates from these programs, as well.”  Supporters feel such an approach will provide taxpayers with the maximum return on their investment and “improve the university system overall.”   However, the opposition, championed by a number of history professors, argues the strategy would detract from the university’s prestige and lead to a less “richly educated” workforce.  Over 1,300 faculty from Florida and beyond have petitioned Florida Governor Rick Scott to seek faculty input for future decisions regarding Florida’s higher education system.  This particular form of differential tuition contrasts with the more typical, cost-driven approach, under which students in majors that cost the university more to provide (such as STEM fields) are charged higher tuition than students studying less expensive subjects (like history).
  • Carnegie Corporation President, Vartan Gregorian, is advocating for a presidential commission on higher education to “generate the kind of attention and urgency that the circumstances demanded for the nation to keep its competitive edge.”  The commission’s mandate would be to address the many challenges confronting higher education (cost, access, etc.) and help policy makers determine its future.  Given the drastic demographic, technological, and economic changes already occurring in higher ed, Mr. Gregorian believes now is the appropriate time to discuss nation-wide reform.
  • Apprenticeships are becoming more popular in the U.S. as a means of bridging the disconnect between what students learn in college and what their future employers actually want them to know.   Several Harvard professors, inspired by Germany’s “dual system” of providing students with practical job-related skills and theoretical instruction, are working with six states to establish apprenticeship programs.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday in a pivotal copyright-infringement case over whether textbooks from foreign markets can be imported to the U.S. and resold without the publisher’s permission. The Court’s decision in the case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, may have major consequences for publishers, academic libraries, museums, and others who resell, lend, or display copyrighted material made and purchased outside the United States.

The case arose when Supap Kirtsaeng, a U.S. college student originally from Thailand, re-sold textbooks that his friends and relatives shipped to him from abroad. In response, publisher John Wiley & Sons sued him for copyright infringement. Mr. Kirtsaeng’s defense centers on the first-sale doctrine, which permits the buyer of a copyrighted work to lend or resell it without permission. However, the Copyright Act states that the first-sale doctrine applies only to goods “lawfully made under this title,” which may or may not include foreign products. In August 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision that only domestic works are protected under the first-sale rule, nevertheless the Supreme Court may have a different ruling.

As the NY Times reported, much of Monday’s discussion involved what lawyers call the “parade of horribles”—the worst-case scenarios that could result from a ruling in favor of the publishers. For example, libraries could theoretically be prohibited from distributing foreign-made books, owners of foreign cars could be barred from re-selling them as used, and more. The publisher’s attorney stated that there might be provisions allowing for some gifts and re-sales, such as the “fair use” doctrine which lets copyrighted works be reproduced if they are to be used for research, critique, or similar purposes. However, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. countered, “It seems unlikely to me that, if your position is right, a court would say, it’s a fair use to resell the Toyota, it’s a fair use to display the Picasso.”

Justice Elena Kagan, considered by many to be the crucial swing vote in the case, actively questioned both sides, but did not reveal her leanings. Otherwise, the justices appear divided, according to The Chronicle. A ruling in the case is expected by the end of the court’s term, in June.

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.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in the landmark affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Texas (UT) (please see our previous blog for more information). Four Justices will need to support UT if it and, potentially, public colleges across the nation are to continue using race and as a factor in admissions decisions. Three justices hearing the case have historically supported affirmative action. A fourth supporter, Justice Kagan, recused herself because she played a role in preparing the Obama administration’s UT-supportive brief. The other five justices have typically expressed doubt over affirmative action’s value. Of these, Justice Kennedy is regarded as the most plausible swing vote. A 4-4 tie would uphold the federal appeals court ruling that UT’s program is constitutional.

Justices seeming to favor Fisher questioned:

  • If UT could know it had achieved a desired level of diversity without setting a target and verifying its students’ self-reported race; and,
  • Whether an admission process is truly fair if it benefits minority students from affluent backgrounds as much those from poverty. Justice Alito Jr. said: “I thought the whole purpose of affirmative action was to help students who come from underprivileged backgrounds.”

Justices seeming to favor UT questioned:

  • Whether Ms. Fisher’s suit is even legal, given UT’s statement that she would have been rejected regardless of race considerations; and,
  • Why the Court should change its 2003 decision on Grutter v. Bollinger—“A case into which so much thought and effort went and so many people around the country have depended,” said Justice Breyer.

Both sides agreed that the Court may have led colleges astray in 2003 by ruling that applicants’ race could be considered in order to assemble a “critical mass” of minority students. They said the term “critical mass” (defined by Grutter as the sufficient number of minority students to ensure they feel comfortable speaking out, not isolated) encourages colleges to aim for some numerical threshold of minority students, but such an approach could violate the Court’s ban on college’s use of quotas. After the arguments, the esteemed SCOTUSblog offered that: “Affirmative action is alive but ailing, the idea of ‘critical mass’ to measure racial diversity is in very critical condition, and a nine-year-old precedent may have to be reshaped in order to survive.”

The Court is expected to decide the case in spring or summer of next year.

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Education released its annual update on federal student loan cohort default rates (CDRs) and, although national CDRs are gloomily high, UW’s rates are impressively low. As the Department is in the process of switching to a more accurate three-year CDR measure, this year’s report includes both the FY 2010 two-year and the FY 2009 three-year CDRs. These rates represent the percentage of student borrowers who failed to make loan payments for 270 days within two or three years, respectively, of leaving school.

The Department provides breakdowns of its data by institution type, state and school. Here are some key findings:

Nationally

  • The FY 2010 two-year CDR increased from 8.8 to 9.1 percent overall. Public institutions increased from 7.2 to 8.3 percent, private nonprofits increased from 4.6 to 5.2 percent, but for-profits decreased from 15.0 to 12.9 percent (though their two-year CDR is still the highest).
  • The FY 2009 three-year CDR is 13.4 percent overall (this is the Department’s first year reporting three-year data) with public institutions at 11 percent, private nonprofits at 7.5 percent, and for-profits at 22.7 percent.

Locally

  • UW’s three-year CDR is a remarkable 3.1 percent—more than 10 percentage points below the national average.
  • UW’s two-year CDR increased slightly from 1.4 to 2.1 percent, but is still well below the national average.
  • The State of Washington’s three-year CDR is 11.3 percent—below the national average, but still above approximately half the states.

Unfortunately, the Department does not release loan default rates disaggregated by student demographic (even though it collects this information), which prevents schools from identifying and catering assistance to students with the most need. While third-parties have conducted studies indicating that Pell Grant recipients and Latino students are more likely to default on loans, schools and legislators need better data from the federal government in order to fully identify at-risk groups and mitigate rising default rates.

On October 10th, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas (UT)—the first Supreme Court case on the use of race in higher education admissions since Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. The case asks that the Court either declare UT’s admissions policy to be in violation of Grutter v. Bollinger or entirely overrule their 2003 decision that race could play a limited role in universities’ admissions policies. An overruling of Grutter could effectively end affirmative action at public universities.

Although around 80 percent of UT’s admissions decisions are made via a unique, race-blind method called the Top 10 Percent Plan, the case challenges whether UT’s “holistic file review” system (which is used to fill the remaining 20 percent of openings) exceeds their right to consider race and ethnicity. Under the holistic file review system, admissions officers and hired readers assess the full application submitted, reading essays and recommendation letters, assessing writing skills, and importantly, seeking to understand the context in which SAT scores and GPAs were earned. Race is one of many contextual factors considered. The UW adopted a race-neutral version of the holistic approach when it became clear, several years after the passage of I-200, that a composite score admissions platform (which essentially scores applicants based on GPA and SAT or ACT scores) insufficiently accommodated diverse applicants. Over time, the UW’s holistic review, even without a race factor, was found to significantly increase the diversity of entering classes.

In fact, schools across the country use similar systems to foster diversity in their schools, and many have voiced their avid support for UT. In August, the American Council on Education filed a brief on behalf of itself and 39 higher education groups backing UT. The Obama administration also filed a UT-supportive brief, as did a group of U.S. senators, and a number of states (including California, where voters barred public universities from considering race in admissions).

However, last Friday, opponents of UT’s holistic review caught a break when the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization based in D.C., presented new research suggesting that eliminating the consideration of race would have a lesser impact on minority students than some believe. In addition, their research implies that under affirmative action, minority students may actually achieve less academic success than they would otherwise. The studies received criticism for their methodology and lack of peer-review, but have still caught the attention of the media and public.

Debates will likely continue through next month. If the Court rules in favor of Fisher, the use of holistic review across the country may be called into question, although the UW’s race-neutral model should be significantly less vulnerable.

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.”

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