Office of Planning and Budgeting

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 New York Times Economix blog has some recent posts discussing new data that continue to illustrate the economic benefits of a college education. Check out all Economix posts that have been tagged with the topic Is College Worth it.

These data and conclusions align with our recent OPB brief, Is Undergraduate Education America’s Next Economic Bubble.

As we continue to experience a very slow recovery from a deep recession, the ideas of long-time critics of modern, inclusive American higher education who question the value of college for many have gained traction and blossomed into widespread public speculation about whether undergraduate education might be the next economic bubble to threaten the US economy. We explore this topic in the latest OPB brief and hold that, in the context of data, the ‘bubble’ metaphor, though effective at capturing public attention in an economic climate characterized by fear and uncertainty, is ultimately inaccurate, misleading, and harmful.

We would love to hear your feedback on this topic!

The Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters World University Rankings for 2011-12 were released today and the University of Washington ranked 25th, one of only five public US institutions to make the top 25 (UC Berkeley was the highest ranking US public at 10).

US News and World Report recently ranked the UW 42nd among all national universities in the US, while the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked the UW at 16.

These rankings help to validate the world class teaching, research and service that take place here at the UW every day. However, it is good to cast a critical eye on the business of ranking universities in general, and this column published by Inside Higher Education does a great job of summarizing some of the questions we should always ask of such ranking endeavors.

A new survey conducted by Hart Research Associates for the College Board entitled One Year Out asked a representative sample of 1,507 high school graduates of the class of 2010 about their high school experience and their first year out of high school. Of the sample, 43 percent are at a four-year college, 25 percent are at a two-year college, 6 percent are in trade school, and 26 percent are not currently pursuing higher education. Despite increased college costs and the still slow economy, respondents were overwhelmingly optimistic about the value of a college education, with 86 percent asserting that college is worth the time, effort and money and 90 percent claiming that a high school diploma is no longer enough for the demands of today’s work world. Furthermore, 66 percent are very or somewhat optimistic about finding good jobs in the future. Other findings included:

  • The majority of HS graduates enjoyed their high school experience, though most wished they had taken more (or more challenging) math, science and writing classes.
  • 69 percent of HS graduates claimed that high school graduation requirements were very or pretty easy, and 37 percent believe they should be made more stringent.
  • More than half of HS graduates enrolled in higher education found college more challenging than expected, and a quarter of those students needed non-credit remedial courses to catch up. Of respondents enrolled at two-year colleges, 37 percent took remedial classes.
  • The biggest concern by far (20 percentage points above all others) was affordability: 5 in 9 students who attend college find affording higher education pretty or very challenging, and 56 percent of those who aren’t in college claim cost was a big factor in their decision not to enroll.
  • Of students who did not enroll in college this year, 83 percent intend to go in the future.

To read more about this topic, check out the full report or read some of our previous blog posts on similar surveys: Recent Grads Affirm Value of College Education and Americans Struggling Economically, Worried About Affordable Higher Ed.

Along with its survey of the general public, the Pew Center recently published a survey of 1,055 two- and four-year, public, private and for-profit college presidents, concerning the quality, accessibility, and affordability of higher education. The two surveys were conducted around the same time and asked similar questions.  However, there were notable differences between the opinions of college presidents and the general public on key issues in higher education. On the whole, college presidents were less concerned about affordability and access, and more concerned with student and academic program quality. Some highlights of the data include:

  • 38 percent of college presidents think higher education is moving in the wrong direction, with only 7 percent believing the US system will be the best in the world in 2021
  • 42 percent of presidents believe college is affordable for most families (compared with 22 percent of the general population)
  • 17 percent of presidents believe students get excellent value for their money (only five percent of the general population agrees)
  • The majority (58 percent) of college presidents believe students come to college less qualified than their counterparts ten years ago, and only seven percent think current students study more than students ten years ago

Interestingly, leaders of for-profit schools were most likely to be pessimistic about the affordability and direction of higher education and student preparation. Conversely, presidents of the most selective schools were most optimistic about those factors. Furthermore, the majority of college presidents think it is unlikely that the nation will meet President Obama’s degree attainment goals by 2020. To find out more, check out the Chronicle’s analysis, our blog post on the general public survey or read the full Pew Center report here.

The Pew Research Center recently conducted a large telephone survey of 2,142 Americans to gauge opinions about higher education quality, affordability, and importance. While many respondents reported anxiety about affordability, most valued a college education highly and reported a belief that it would provide career benefits in the future.  Some of the key findings of the survey included:

  • Only 22 percent of respondents believe most Americans could afford to pay the cost of college.
  • 48 percent think families should pay for the majority of the cost of a college education.
  • Of young adults who are not in college, 57% say they chose not to attend because they preferred to work and save money, and 48% claimed they cannot afford to go to college.
  • Average loan debt for students with bachelor’s degrees has hit an all-time high of $23,000, which respondents say has made it harder to make ends meet, buy a home, choose a career, and start a family.
  • Only five percent of the population thinks the higher education system is providing excellent value for money.

These results seemed to reflect a growing concern about college affordability as well as the shift in the responsibility of families versus the government in covering educational costs. Nevertheless, among college graduates, 86 percent believed college had been a good investment for them. Of parents with children aged 17 and younger, fully 94 percent expected their children to go to college. Additionally, most respondents were aware of the large financial benefit of holding a college degree: Another recent Pew survey showed that college graduates make about $650,000 more than high school graduates in their lifetimes. The survey seemed to reflect the belief that, while college is a valuable personal investment, affordability and quality persist as a significant concern.

Note that these results are consistent with other recent surveys we have reported on:

The New York Review of Books has published a high level review of the recent spate of ‘higher education in crisis’ books. In Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?, Peter Brooks takes a look at common themes contained in four recent publications on the state of higher education in the US.

Read the whole piece if you get a chance, but we have pulled out a couple of passages that especially struck us:

  • “On the whole, one has to say that the relative autonomy of the American university has been far more beneficial than the contrary. American higher education is a nonsystem that is messy, reduplicative, unfair—just like American society as a whole—but it has made genuine commitments to quality and to a greater degree of social justice, to the extent that is within its control, than most other institutions of the society.”
  • “Research and teaching have always cohabited: anyone who teaches a subject well wants to know more about it, and when she knows more, to impart that knowledge. Universities when true to themselves have always been places that harbor recondite subjects of little immediate utility—places where you can study hieroglyphics and Coptic as well as string theory and the habits of lemmings—places half in and half out of the world. No country needs that more than the US, where the pragmatic has always dominated.”
  • “[Universities] often fail, they need reform and course correction, but they are not, at their best, merely venal and self-serving. They deserve better critics than they have got at present.”

Mirroring previous findings, the American Council on Education (ACE) released results from a survey of recent college graduates that confirms a high level of satisfaction with the quality and utility of American higher education, but also reflects a growing sense that students and families should take more responsibility for paying for higher education.

Among the findings:

  • 89 percent believed their education was worth it—even after considering the time and money required to attend.
  • 28 percent said that preparing a student for a career was the primary goal of a higher education, while 31 percent said that learning to think critically was the most important role.
  • 40 percent stated that the student and family should be primarily responsible for funding a higher education, followed by the federal and state governments.

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