Office of Planning and Budgeting

On Monday, the U.S. Education Department (ED) began formal negotiationson the draft language of a proposed new  “gainful employment” rule. The rule, originally published in 2011, was designed to enforce a requirement of the Higher Education Act that states career education programs—non-degree programs at all colleges and most degree programs at for-profit colleges—must “prepare students for gainful employment” in order to participate in federal student aid programs. The rule was meant to discourage these programs from misusing federal aid dollars and leaving students with debts burdens they are unable to repay. However, in 2012 a federal judge rejected major provisions of the rule, requiring that ED rethink its strategy.

Here’s a summary of the changes:

  • The proposed rule applies to programs with as few as 10 students, whereas the old rule counted only career-focused programs with 30 or more students. Because of this change, ED estimates that the new rule could cover 11,359 programs at for-profit and nonprofit colleges—nearly twice as many as the old rule covered—and that 974 of those programs (9 percent) could fail to meet the proposed standards.
  • The draft regulation omits loan-repayment as a criterion for federal student aid eligibility. The old rule severed federal aid to programs where too few students were repaying their loans or where graduates’ debt-to-earnings and debt-to-discretionary-income ratios were too high. The new rule removes the loan repayment standards, which the courts deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” and relies only on the latter two measures.
  • Debt-to-earnings calculations would be based only on students who receive federal aid, rather than students who complete the program. The old calculations were based on all students who completed the program, whereas the proposed calculations are based on any students who receive federal student loans and Pell Grants, regardless of whether they complete the program. As the rule is designed to ensure that federal aid is used effectively, this seems a more appropriate approach. 
  • Schools would have fewer chances to improve their performance before losing federal aid eligibility. Under the previous rule, programs that failed the measures in 3 out of any 4 years would be ineligible for federal student aid. However, the new rule only lets programs fail in 2 out of any 3 years before they lose eligibility.

For details, see a comparison of the two versions prepared by the Education Department.  Please continue to follow our blog as well as the Federal Relations blog for updates on this topic.

Last Wednesday, eight Democratic senators sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) asking Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, to investigate strategies that some for-profit colleges allegedly use to falsely lower their cohort default rates (CDRs)—the rate at which student borrowers default on federal loans. Institutions with high CDRs can face penalties including a loss of eligibility for federal student aid programs.

The letter cites a recent Senate Committee report, which presents evidence that for-profits routinely use two tactics
in particular to manipulate CDRs:

  1. “Encouraging or even harassing borrowers” into forbearances or deferments, which can delay default until after the
    period for which CDRs are typically reported; and
  2. Manipulating campus and program categorizations in a way that makes their default rates artificially low.

The senators argue that “for-profit schools should not be able to use administrative smoke and mirrors to circumvent regulations that protect students and taxpayers, and the department should take action to prevent these tactics.” Some for-profits have admitted to using such strategies to “manage” their CDRs, but they deny that doing so conflicts with their students’ best interests.

For-profits consistently average higher default rates than all other higher education sectors.  Of the students who began repaying loans in 2009, 22.7 percent of students at for-profits defaulted within three years, while only 11 percent of public students defaulted in that timeframe, and only 7.5 percent of private nonprofit students. In contrast, the UW’s three-year CDR was an impressively low 3.1

Comparing for-profits’ two-year CDRs with newly-reported three-year CDRs reveals a major, and potentially damning, discrepancy. Fifty percent more students from for profits’ defaulted in the three-year timeframe than in the two-year timeframe. The senators say this “raises serious questions about how widespread the use of such tactics may be across the sector.”

ED has yet to respond to the senators’ letter.

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.

The New York Times reported last week that the University of Phoenix will be shutting down 115 of its 227 locations over the next year—25 main campuses and 90 learning centers. The roughly 13,000 students affected by the closings (4 percent of the total student body) will have the option of either transferring to the university’s online classes or moving to another physical location. In addition, the Apollo Group, which owns the university, announced it is laying off 800 employees (4.7 percent of the university’s total staff).

The changes surprise some as Phoenix was a booming success for over a decade. However, in 2011, for-profits as a whole began to struggle. Tightened regulations; a poor economy; growing competition from MOOCs and other online providers; and scrutiny of the sector’s unethical recruiting practices, low graduation rates, high default rates, and use of federal funds caused for-profit enrollments to fall significantly relative to other sectors (as discussed in a previous post). And, as enrollments fell, so did revenue. The University of Phoenix was among the hardest hit. Compared with the same fiscal quarter a year ago, student enrollment at Phoenix dropped nearly 14 percent and Apollo’s net income plummeted 60 percent.

So, will the University live up to its name and rise anew from the remains of its finances and reputation? Or could Phoenix’s decline foretell the impending doom of other for-profit institutions? Time will tell.

The Pell Grant program, the largest federal student grant program, was expected to be $20 billion short of the $40 billion price estimated for FY12 (which ended July 1). However, the Department of Education surprised many with newly-released data showing the federal government not only spent well under that estimate at only $33.4 billion, but in fact $2.2 billion less than FY11.

Recently, Pell eligibility increased dramatically as college enrollments rose and the recession continued to impact family/student income. This trend continued in FY12 and, interestingly, the dip in Pell spending occurred despite a 58,000 increase in Pell recipients—to almost 9.7 million. In fall 2011, nearly one quarter of UW freshmen were Pell eligible.

Reasons for the decline in Pell spending include:

  • The elimination of the year-round, or summer, Pell Grant, which allowed students to qualify for two awards in a year.
  • More students attending college part time as part-time status reduces Pell award amounts.
  • Fewer students attending for-profit institutions, which tend to enroll students who qualify for larger awards. Recent bad press and slumping enrollments have hit for-profits hard. Consequently, the number of Pell recipients at for-profits declined by 108,000 students, to roughly 2.1 million, and accounted for $1.4 billion of the decrease.

The drop in Pell expenditures is a relief for most lawmakers as they face next year’s “fiscal cliff” and must address both the impending tax hikes (when Bush tax cuts expire) and the automatic spending cuts (as mandated by the sequester). The Obama administration and congressional Democrats have resisted financial aid-related budget cutting, maintaining the maximum Pell award of $5,550 and writing specific protection for Pell Grant funding into the Budget Control Act. However, recent financial straits have already caused the federal government to eliminate several student loan programs such as the previously-mentioned summer Pell Grant, the six-month grace period for loan repayment, subsidized Stafford Loans for graduate students, and incentives for early loan repayment. With the sequester and difficult budget decisions looming on the horizon, it is safe to say that no funding is safe.

We’ve blogged about recent federal scrutiny of the for-profit higher education sector, and specifically about their reported exploitation of veteran students. In addition to new Department of Education higher education regulations implemented last year, President Obama signed Executive Order 13607 in late April. The Order charges several administrative agencies (Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Education) with developing a set of principles that will apply to all institutions receiving funds from federal military and veteran education benefits programs, including the GI Bill. The Principles must be developed within 90 days of the Order and ensure the following for all students eligible for such benefits:

  • Require that institutions provide prospective students with information about the total cost of the education and the portion of that cost that will be covered by their military or veteran benefits as well as estimated student loan costs.
  • Require that institutions provide prospective students with clear data about student outcomes such as graduation rates and time to degree.
  • End all fraudulent or overly aggressive recruiting techniques.
  • Provide individualized educational plans detailing how a student will fulfill program requirements and provide an estimated time to degree.
  • Provide a contact for financial and academic advising to each student.

The Order also mandates development of a centralized system that allows any student receiving military or veteran benefits to register complaints with the federal government. Additionally, it seeks to trademark the term GI Bill and other related terms to cut down on misleading or faudulent use.

Although the Executive Order applies to all institutions who enroll students receiving these benefits, including the UW, the vast majority of violations of these principles exist in the for profit sector. Recognizing that the sector is most affected by the new Order, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities is  appealing to Congress by arguing that the Administration is creating unessecary and duplicative oversight. In the meantime, the involved agencies are moving forward in compliance with the Order.

City University of New York dean Ann Kirschner (note she also sits on the Apollo Group’s Board of Directors) posted an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday about “change” in higher education. She characterized the “glacial pace” at which higher education institutions evolve despite funding crises, new technology, and mounting pressure from for-profit institutions and federal political agendas. This article correctly identifies many of the challenges facing public higher education and also, the need to meet old and new challenges with new ideas.

However, one thing missing from this piece is an analysis of what things about higher education today (and yesterday) are worth protecting, preserving and investing in more deeply. Further, we would like to challenge the claim that universities have not evolved during the last century. Students donning clickers, ID cards with electronic journal access, and nearly 24-hour email access to professors might agree. Kirschner’s article appropriately identifies many of the challenges that make change difficult at (sometimes) huge, complex, and varied institutions. However, we would add that each institution must examine its values and determine what is worth preserving (or even, expanding) and what is in need of reform, and then reform quickly. As many of the thoughtful comments on this article state, change for change’s sake, or the wholesale adoption of untested change is more than futile, it can be incredibly destructive.