Office of Planning and Budgeting

Yesterday, March 4th, President Obama submitted his fiscal year 2015 budget request to Congress. The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) has published their analysis of the budget as has the Education Policy Program at New America.

TICAS states that the President’s proposal “takes important steps towards making college affordable for Americans by reducing the need to borrow and making federal student loan payments more manageable.” Specifically, his budget:

  • Invests in Pell Grants and prevents them from being taxed.  The budget provides funds to cover the scheduled $100 increase in the maximum Pell award, raising it from $5,730 in 2014-15 to $5,830 in 2015-16. TICAS notes that although this increase will help nearly 9 million students, “the maximum Pell Grant is expected to cover the smallest share of the cost of attending a four-year public college since the program started in the 1970s.”
  • Makes the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) permanent.  TICAS supports making the AOTC permanent as they note research suggests the AOTC is the most likely of the current tax benefits to increase college access and success.  New America, however, recommends the administration convert the tax credit to a grant program as they state researchers have found grants to be a more effective way to deliver aid to low-income families.
  • Improves and streamlines income-based repayment (IBR) programs. Under the President’s budget, more borrowers would be eligible to cap their monthly payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income and have their remaining debt forgiven without taxation after 20 years. The budget also adjusts the IBR programs to prevent debts forgiveness for high-income borrowers who can afford to pay their loans.
  • Requests funding for the College Opportunity and Graduation Bonuses.  The budget proposes establishing College Opportunity and Graduation Bonuses, which would reward schools that enroll and graduate low-income students on time. Both TICAS and New America note that, unless this proposal is thoughtfully designed, it could incentivize schools to lower their academic standards in order to make it easier for Pell students to graduate. Further, as this proposal is one of several different efforts to reward colleges that provide affordable, quality educations, it is unclear how its goals and formulas would interact with those of initiatives like the Postsecondary Education Ratings System.

The UW’s Federal Relations blog notes that the budget also proposes $56 billion for an “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative,” which “aims to effectively replace the remaining FY2015 sequestration cuts for nondefense discretionary programs – the programs we care about the most.” Please stay tuned to their blog for more information and updates.

Now that news sources are back from their holiday hiatus, we have a couple of noteworthy stories to bring you.  Both articles highlight the continuing trend toward greater accountability.

Florida’s new rules linking tenure with student success are upheld:  Last week in Florida, a judge upheld new rules by the State Department of Education that require tenure decisions—known in Florida as “continuing contracts”—to be contingent upon professors’ performance on certain student success criteria. The judge also upheld a new requirement that faculty must work for five years, rather than three, before being eligible for the contracts. The United Faculty of Florida had contested that the new rules were beyond the scope of the department’s powers, but the judge rejected that claim.

Senators propose penalties for colleges with high student-loan default rates:  On Thursday, three Democratic senators introduced a bill dubbed “the Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2013,” which would impose a fine on colleges with high student-loan default rates and federal student-aid enrollment rates of at least 25 percent. Penalties would be on a sliding scale. On the low end, colleges with default rates of 15 to 20 percent would incur a fee equal to 5 percent of the total value of loans issued to their students in default. On the high end, schools with default rates of 30 percent or more would incur a 20 percent penalty.  The Education Department currently cuts off federal funds for institutions with high default rates, but the senators argue it punishes only “the most extravagant, outrageous schools.” The Chronicle writes, “The proposed legislation would hit for-profit institutions the hardest, as their graduates have the highest default rates, on average.”

Student Exchanges Hit Record High.  According to the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities and the number of American students studying abroad are at record highs. In 2012-13, 820,000 foreign students attended American higher ed institutions, a 55,000 increase (7.2 percent) from the previous year. Chinese undergraduates exhibited the biggest increase, 26 percent, bringing the total number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. (undergraduates and graduates) to 235,000. In 2011-12 (the most recent year for which data are available) 283,000 American students went abroad for credit university courses, up 3.4 percent from the prior year.  For institutions hosting the most international students, the UW ranked 14th in the country.

New Studies Cast Doubt on Effectivenessof State Performance-based Funding.  Now that economies are recovering from the Great Recession, state legislators across the country have been hurrying to adopt systems that link state funding for higher education to student outcomes like degree production and completion rates. However, several research papers presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education question the effectiveness of these “performance-based funding” systems. See Inside Higher Ed for a summary of the findings.

College Completion Rates See Little Improvement.  College-completion rates remained largely unchanged this year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Of the first-time students who entered college in fall 2007, 54.2 percent earned a degree or certificate within six years—up 0.1 percentage points from the 2006 cohort. In the public sector, completion rates rose by 1.3 percentage points for students who started at public four-years and by 1.1 percentage points for those who began at public two-years. Unlike the federal government’s college-completion measure, the center tracks part-time students and students who transfer to a different college, sector, or state. Only 22 percent of part-time students earned credentials within six years, compared with 76 percent of those enrolled full time. The research center will issue its full report next month.

University of Michigan’s Shared Services Strategy Faces Opposition.  The University of Michigan is the latest campus to implement “shared services,” a cost-saving strategy that has academic departments rely on centralized staff, rather than department-level staffers. Theoretically, employees in the central pool could become more specialized, and thus more efficient, than departments’ jack-of-all-trades staff. Administrators at Michigan hoped to save $17 million by moving 275 staffers from their campus offices to a single building on the edge of town. However, not only are faculty and students speaking out in opposition, the plan is no longer expected to save nearly as much as once hoped and may barely break even in the short term. Read more at Inside Higher Ed.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released its annual update on federal student loan cohort default rates (CDRs), which measure the frequency with which student borrowers at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, etc.) default on their federal loans. Although both national and UW CDRs rose, the UW’s rates remain well below those of the nation.

As ED is in its second year of switching to the  more accurate three-year CDR measure, this year’s report includes both the FY 2011 two-year and the FY 2010 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:

FY 2010 three-year CDR:

  • The national three-year CDR increased from 13.4 to 14.7 percent overall—public institutions increased from 11.0 to 13.0 percent, private nonprofits increased from 7.5 to 8.2 percent, but for-profits’ whopping 22.7 percent rate decreased slightly to 21.8 percent.
  • The UW’s three-year CDR increased slightly from 3.1 to 3.9 percent, but this is still nearly 11 percentage points below the national average

FY 2011 two-year CDR:

  • The national two-year CDR increased from 9.1 to 10.0 percent overall—public institutions increased from 8.3 to 9.6 percent, for-profits increased from 12.9 to 13.6 percent, but private nonprofits held steady at 5.2 percent.
  • The UW’s two-year CDR increased from 2.1 to 3.2 percent, but this is still nearly 7 percentage points below the national average

While this is good news, many students still struggle to afford ever-increasing tuition fees and/or to repay their student loans. The UW reaches out to our former students at risk of default on their Stafford Loans and helps identify federal repayment options that could benefit them. Former UW students who are in default or experiencing difficulties repaying their loans can contact the Office of Student Financial Aid for assistance (osfa@uw.edu, 206-543-6101). Students can also visit studentloans.gov to explore their repayment options.

As The Seattle Times reported today, “For the first time ever, three Washington colleges swept the nation in their respective size categories for having the most participants in the Peace Corps.” The UW topped the large-schools list with 107 volunteers (tied with the University of Florida), Western Washington University led the medium-schools list with 73 volunteers, and Gonzaga University came in first on the small-schools list with 24.

Carrie Hessler-Radelet, acting director of the Peace Corps, traveled from D.C. to attend a news conference here on campus today. She personally congratulated the three schools on their rankings and said the achievement reflects Washington’s dedication to innovation and helping the poor.

The UW also topped the large-schools list between 2007 and 2010.

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.

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.”

Controversy has surrounded massive open online courses (MOOCs) since their inception.  Some believe MOOCs will broaden access to higher education and bring down costs, while others fear the rush to embrace MOOCs may come at the expense of academic quality. To help settle this debate, the American Council on Education (ACE) revealed yesterday a “wide-ranging research and evaluation effort” of MOOCs’ academic potential, including a pilot project to determine whether some MOOCs should be eligible for college credit.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded ACE nearly $900,000 to pursue these activities—one of the foundation’s 13 new MOOC-related research grants.

ACE’s pilot project will examine 5 to 10 MOOCs offered by Coursera (one of the largest MOOC providers.) beginning next year. Teams of faculty will compare these MOOCs to traditional college courses, evaluating their contents, teaching methods, and student engagement. To pass the review and be recommended for credit, Coursera must find a way to authenticate its students’ identities—a difficult task considering thousands of students can register for each course. Coursera hopes to address this challenge by partnering with online proctoring companies that monitor tests remotely and verify students’ IDs via special software and webcams.

According to the NY Times, if ACE believes a course deserves academic credit, students who want to earn that credit would pay a fee for the proctored exam.  If those students want a transcript that they can submit to other schools, they’ll need to pay another fee (Coursera’s offerings are otherwise free).

It should be noted that even if ACE recommends a course for credit, individual colleges must still decide whether to accept those credits. While higher education institutions (as represented by ACE) and the Gates Foundation may believe in the potential of MOOCs’, it is unclear whether colleges will actually welcome MOOC transfer credits.

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.”

A few weeks ago, the National Research Council’s Panel on Measuring Higher Education Productivity published its 192-page report on Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education, marking the culmination of a three-year, $900,000 effort funded by the Lumina Foundation and involving 15 higher education policy experts nationwide.

In explaining the need for a new productivity measure, the Panel made several key observations:

  • It’s all about incentives: Institutional behavior is dynamic and directly related to the incentives embedded within measurement systems. As such, policymakers must ensure that the incentives in the measurement system genuinely support the behaviors that society wants from higher education institutions and are structured so that measured performance is the result of authentic success rather than manipulative behaviors.
  • Costs and productivity are two different issues: Focusing on reducing the cost of credit hours or credentials invites the obvious solutions: substitute cheap teachers for expensive ones, increase class sizes, and eliminate departments that serve small numbers of students unless they somehow offset their costs. In contrast, focusing on productivity assesses whether changes in strategy are producing more quality-adjusted output (credit hours or credentials) per quality-adjusted unit of input (faculty, equipment, laboratory space, etc.).
  • Using accountability measures without context is akin to reading a legend without looking at the map: Different types of institutions have different objectives, so the productivity of a research university cannot be compared to that of a liberal arts or community college, not least because they serve very different student populations who have different abilities, goals, and aspirations. The panel notes that, among the most important contextual variables that must be controlled for when comparing productivity measures are institutional selectivity, program mix, size, and student demographics.

The Panel also contributed a thorough documentation of the difficulties involved in defining productivity in higher education. From time to time, it is helpful to remind ourselves that, while it may be “possible to count and assign value to goods such as cars and carrots because they are tangible and sold in markets, it is harder to tabulate abstractions like knowledge and health because they are neither tangible nor sold in markets”. The diversity of outputs produced by the institutions, the myriad inputs used in its activities, quality change over time and quality variation across institutions and systems all contribute to the complexity of the task.

Despite these difficulties, the Panel concluded that the higher education policy arena would be better served if it used a measure of productivity whose limitations were clearly documented than if it used no measure of productivity at all. It proposed a basic productivity metric measuring the instructional activities of a college or university: a simple ratio of outputs over inputs for a given period. Its preferred measure of output was the sum of credit hours produced, adjusted to reflect the added value that credit hours gain when they form a completed degree. Its measure of input was a combination of labor (faculty, staff) and non-labor (buildings and grounds, materials, and supplies) factors of production used for instruction, adjusted to allow for comparability. The Panel was careful to link all components of its formula to readily available data published in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) so that its suggested measure may easily be calculated and used. It also specified how improvements to the IPEDS data structure might help produce more complete productivity measures.

The key limitation in the Panel’s proposal – fully acknowledged in the report – is that it does not account for the quality of inputs or outputs. As the Panel notes, when attention is overwhelmingly focused on quantitative metrics, there is a high risk that a numeric goal will be pursued at the expense of quality. There is also a risk that quantitative metrics will be compared across institutions without paying heed to differences in the quality of input or output. The report summarizes some of the work that has been done to help track quality, but concludes that the state of research is not advanced enough to allow any quality weighting factors to be included in its productivity formula.

While readers may lament the Panel’s relegation of measures of quality to further research, especially given the time and resources invested in its effort, the report remains a very useful tool in understanding the issues involved in assessing productivity in higher education and provides valuable food for thought for policymakers and administrators alike.