(This piece was originally posted on 07/11/2013, however it was lost due to technical issues and is therefore re-posted here.)
Last week, the Oregon legislature passed a bill that, if signed by the governor, will implement a pilot program to study the effects and feasibility of substituting upfront tuition payments with income-based, post-graduation payments. For 24 years after graduating, four-year college students would pay back 3 percent of their income and community college students would pay back 1.5 percent. Students who do not graduate would pay back a smaller percent determined by how long they were in school.
If, after several years of study, Oregon decides to adopt a plan (or some form of it), it would signify a major shift in the funding paradigm for public institutions. But that’s a big IF. The plan has received considerable criticism due to a multitude of unanswered questions that could pose significant logistical barriers. For example:
- How would institutions and/or the state pay for the plan’s implementation (i.e. the several years of foregone tuition revenue between when a student enters school and when they graduate and start earning pay)?
- How would the state efficiently collect accurate income data on students who move out-of-state?
- How would the state go about collecting and enforcing payments?
- How would the plan account for and apply to part-time students, transfer students, mid-career students, and other non-traditional students?
- How would the plan work with federal and state financial aid programs? Would low-income students be accommodated so as to avoid creating barriers to entry?
- How does one pilot a 24-year repayment program in just 2 or 3 years?
Even if Oregon’s higher education commission, which is tasked with implementing the pilot program, can find viable answers to those questions, the plan still has a number of possible (if not likely) negative consequences. For instance, the plan may:
- Magnify the public’s view of higher education as a private good (only benefiting the individual) rather than a public good (benefits for many) which, in turn, could spur the continuing and problematic trend of replacing state dollars with tuition revenue;
- Make institutions even more vulnerable to economic variations and recessions as their revenue would be tied to graduates’ earning and unemployment rates; and
- Create social and economic imbalance between Oregon and other states since students who expect to earn less—e.g. social science and humanities majors—would be incentivized to go to Oregon, and students expecting to earn more—e.g. engineering and medical students—would likely go elsewhere.
Granted, the idea of basing college payments on graduates’ income is not a new one. Some federal student loans are eligible for income-based repayment and a program similar to Oregon’s already exists in Australia. However, Australia’s version is administered at the federal level, meaning many problems inherent in Oregon’s plan (tracking students who move around the country, imbalance between states, etc.) are avoided.
The Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal think tank in Seattle, proposed a version of the plan for Washington in October 2012; but, unlike Oregon’s version, it has yet to go anywhere. We’ll keep you posted.
Last week, President Obama toured several colleges and universities promoting his plans to make college more accessible and affordable for “middle class” students. As he noted during several stops, achieving a higher education remains one of the most critical means by which citizens achieve job security and financial stability.
For more detailed information about the central themes of the President’s plans, as well as information about which components require action from Congress, please review a brief on the topic, as well as a blog from Federal Relations. Read more about the plans here and here.
In “For Public College, the Best Tuition Is No Tuition,” a recent opinion piece published by The Chronicle, the author describes the merits of Finland’s no-tuition education system. In Finland, “all education became public and free” during the 1960s as part of a multipronged strategy to reform and improve education. The other prongs of the strategy involved strengthening the country’s basic education by providing teachers with better pay and training, ensuring that students have individual attention at a young age, and by making education more interactive and experience-based. Forty years later, the country ranks 1st in Pearson’s Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, which is based on results from a variety of international tests of cognitive skills as well as measures of literacy and high school graduation rates. The US ranked 17th. Though the accolades go to Finland’s basic education system, the author concludes that the US should model its higher education system after Finland’s. However, a higher percentage of the US’s population has attained tertiary education (42 percent, ranked 5th, versus 39 percent in Finland, ranked 9th) and a higher percentage has entered into higher education (72 percent, ranked 8th, versus 68 percent in Finland, ranked 13th).
Even if the US should model its higher ed system after Finland’s, the no-tuition strategy is not nearly as feasible as the author suggests. To determine whether Finland’s approach would be “affordable” for the US, the author multiplies the number of US public students in 2008-09 by the average cost of public tuition, room, and board in 2009-10. By his calculations, the program would cost $130 billion annually which, he notes, is more or less equivalent to what the federal government spent on Pell grants and student loans in 2010 ($134 billion). His approach, however, has some serious flaws:
- First, what he is analyzing here is the cost of all public education becoming free, not all education becoming public and free, which is Finland’s model. It is unclear whether the author accidentally left out private non-profits and for-profits—which would be converted to public institutions and made free under Finland’s model. But if the other sectors are added into the equation, the program costs increase significantly.
- Second, undergraduate tuition and fees have increased since 2008-09. Between 2009-10 and 2012-13, adjusting for inflation, undergraduate tuition and fees increased by about 5 percent per year at public institutions and by an average of 2 percent per year at private non-profits. During that the same time, federal spending on Pell grants and undergraduate financial aid remained relatively stable after adjusting for inflation, meaning the costs would not be nearly as interchangeable as the author suggests.
- Lastly, completely eliminating the price of tuition would stimulate demand, which would increase enrollment at public institutions and, thus, the cost to taxpayers. Not only would there be a per-student cost (tuition, room, board, etc.) for each additional student, more students would also require more buildings, classrooms, labs, housing and other capital investments.
Another significant feature inherent in Finland’s system that isn’t contemplated by the author is Finland’s use of a barrier to entry. Finland has limited enrollment spaces and, thus, requires that students pass certain standardized tests at specified levels, depending on the program. This works well in Finland due to their exceptional K-12 system, which ensures that all students are thoroughly prepared for college regardless of personal income or community wealth. The same cannot necessarily be said about our basic education system in the US. Thus, it isn’t clear whether a standardized test could serve as a barrier to entry without significantly and profoundly harming less prepared students.
We’re trying to create a system in which students of all backgrounds and privileges have access to higher education, but substituting price for a proxy barrier like college preparedness may not get us very far. College preparedness would be a preferable barrier in that naturally-talented low-income students would have a better chance of attending college than they currently do; but what would happen to the students who don’t have the resources they need to succeed? Would they be denied access to higher education?
There are costs and tradeoffs associated with every higher education system and reform plan, free tuition is no exception. Free tuition may be a viable option, but it’s not a silver bullet.
Today, with public financing for higher education eroding, tuition on the rise, and little growth in household income, the idea that technology can and must revolutionize higher education has once again taken strong hold. Recent start-ups, Coursera and Udacity, founded by Stanford faculty members, and a joint MIT/Harvard venture called edX have the country talking once again about the future of higher education. A new OPB brief describes these new developments, clarifies the differences between classroom learning, online learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and evaluates their roles in and impact on higher education in the US.
Tom Friedman published a glowing op-ed about MOOCs this week that reads more like a commercial for these start-up companies than a careful consideration, but many of the Reader Picks comments are quite good in pointing out the many, many questions that remain about how this use of technology will fit into education into the future.
Jeff Selingo’s recent blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education website summarizes conversations he had with students at six higher education institutions about majors, job skills, and online learning. His findings were somewhat surprising and ran counter to many current trends in higher education. First, he learned that students, while completely immersed in the online world otherwise, do not favor online learning. Instead, they crave face-to-face, personal interactions with students and professors. Second, students feel unprepared for choosing a major and a career, and more counseling would be useful in helping students find their ideal career path. Finally, students do not think majors matter that much—instead of pursuing career-specific majors, students want a broad education that exposes them to many disciplines and prepares them to be good learners and thinkers.
As a student, I can relate to most, if not all of Selingo’s findings. I have never taken an online class at the University of Washington, and few undergraduates I know have. Those that have taken online courses say it is much more difficult to stay motivated and keep up with the material when there is no class to go to and no professor or TA to notice if you fall behind. As an International Studies major, discussion and group work are central to my studies and difficult to replicate online. While such classes are likely helpful for non-traditional, working students finishing their degrees, they are not a perfect replacement for an interactive classroom experience.
Selingo’s assertion that students want more career exploration before college is likely accurate, though I know efforts made both in K-12 and higher education in Washington to help students choose careers and majors. The culminating project and High School and Beyond Plan students complete at the end of high school in Washington State is meant to help students identify their interests and strengths and decide on future career and educational goals. FIGs and TRIGs at UW can help students gain an introduction to prospective majors, and career and academic advisors give lots of opportunities for students to explore potential career paths. While certainly not all students seek out help, there are many options and resources for students that look for them.
The finding that surprised me most was that the students Salingo interviewed thought majors did not matter and were not interested in career-specific learning. While most students I know follow their passions and interests when selecting a major, I believe the economic downturn has made my peers more practical about their choices. A student might major in accounting or business instead of economics, or major in biology and pursue their interest in theater in their free time. Many students add second, more job-skills focused majors or minors late in their undergraduate education in order to make themselves more competitive in the job market. Often, internships solicit applications from specific majors like business, engineering or computer science, which pushes students to consider these majors over others in order to get relevant job experience.
To read more of the Chronicle blog post, please click here.
The Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at UC Berkeley has released a new report calling for a modernization of the UC system’s governance structure. Today, the UC system is run as one university with multiple campuses, and most decisions are made by a single, system-wide Board of Regents. The Center contends that the UC system has undergone huge changes in the past 50 years and that this centralized governance system is outdated. The campuses face individual challenges and opportunities: less funding from the state of California, increasing complexity, more diversity in the student body, and special programs, faculty and capital projects. The report contends that a more localized system of governance would be responsive to the needs of the campuses, would promote more efficient decision-making, and would allow the Regents to better capitalize on the unique opportunities of each campus.
The authors recommend that the UC system shift towards a hybrid system of governance, maintaining the Board of Regents while creating individual campus governing boards. The UC Board of Regents would continue to provide system-wide coordination and planning, preserve the UC-wide state budget, ensure access, and protect the reputation for academic excellence the UC system has cultivated. The local campus boards would approve campus budgets and allocate financial aid monies, set tuition for graduate and out-of-state students as well as for resident undergraduates (within Regental limits), set total enrollment capacity, decide on faculty cost-of-living adjustments, and approve campus construction projects.
The plan is controversial, and has received mixed reviews from UC authorities. While UC President Mark Yudof does not endorse the CSHE proposal, he concedes that the system should have further conversations about governance to make the system more flexible and efficient. Robert Birgeneau, one of the report authors and the current UC Berkeley Chancellor, defended the proposal, claiming it provides the necessary autonomy for campuses to address their individual challenges and opportunities.
To read more about the proposed structure of the campus boards, or the specific responsibilities they would hold, check out the full report here.
Last year, SB 5182 officially abolished the Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), replacing it with two new agencies. The change was intended to focus state appropriations on financial assistance for students, and direct a smaller appropriation to coordinated policymaking and planning, directed by a new council with different membership than the HECB’s.
This year, the Legislature passed HB 2483, which amends SB 5182 in several ways. The bill creates the Student Achievement Council, comprised of an Executive Director appointed by the Governor, five citizen members (one of whom must be a student), and one representative each from the four-year public institutions, two-year public colleges, K-12, and a non-profit higher education institution. The new Council is tasked with promoting educational attainment and conducting research and analysis on higher education. The bill also creates a Joint Committee on Higher Education to assess the progress of the Council and propose legislation, made up of four members from each legislative chamber. While the Office of Student Financial Assistance remains, the Office now reports to the Council.
Effectively, this bill changes very little—the Student Achievement Council and the Office of Student Financial Assistance, while both are more focused on financial and governance matters, retain many of the basic duties of the HECB, including:
- Administer state and federal financial aid, loan programs, and oversee the GET program;
- Review budget requests of higher education institutions and propose recommendations to the Office of Financial Management and the Legislature;
- Create strategic plans for higher education;
- Increase educational attainment and access, particularly for minorities, and set goals for degree production;
- Engage in higher education policy research, and ensure the quality and accountability of state degree programs;
- Furnish a prioritized list of capital improvement projects to the Legislature; and,
- Administer scholarship endowment funds, Washington Scholars Program.
All employees of the HECB were automatically transferred to the Council to assist with its duties, as per the final bill.
The most significant change is that the Office and the Council are relieved of certain reporting and policymaking duties to which the HECB was formerly assigned, such as analyzing technology programs, approving degree programs, estimating annual state support for students and costs associated with higher education delivery. While the Council is relieved of these duties, the strategic planning, system design, and budget recommendation work is ongoing.
To read the bill, please click here.
Political Science professor Charli Carpenter made an 8 minute video presentation at the International Studies Association (ISA) conference last week in San Diego that has since been making the Internet rounds. The provocative video ‘mash-up’ highlights the changes and challenges that social media and other web technologies have brought to traditional academic work and communication. While focused on International Relations, the points are widely applicable across disciplines.
Carpenter presents these massive changes, what she refers to as a broadening and flattening of knowledge, quite uncritically. However, she does emphasize that she is not ready to judge them good or bad for academia or for knowledge, but feels there are a number of testable questions about the impact of technology and social media on the intersection of academia and the ‘rest of the world’ that should be the focus of systematic analysis.
As higher education faces external challenges from a host of stakeholders about its value, real world application, and adaptation to the modern world, the topics addressed in this presentation are especially interesting. Does broad and flat come at the expense of focused and deep?
Last year, Senate Bill 5182 (introduced and signed in 2011) significantly changed the landscape of higher education policy coordination when it eliminated the Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB) and created the Office of Student Financial Aid. This bill created a steering committee, led by the Governor, to reconsider higher education governance. After meeting through last summer and autumn, they released a final report that made a number of policy suggestions.
The 2012 Legislature has entertained a number of higher education governance bills to replace the HECB and many of its policy functions. These bills would charge a new Student Achievement Council with some coordinating and planning functions, as well as the HECB’s financial aid management function.
At this stage, SSB 6232 is progressing through the legislative process and may serve as the vehicle for creating the Student Achievement Council and defining its role and responsibility in higher education policy and governance. A summary of the second substitute bill is included below.
- The Student Achievement Council is created
- Within the Council, the Office of Student Financial Assistance is created to administer financial aid
- The Council is comprised of four citizen members, one four-year college representative, one Community/Technical College member, one nonprofit independent higher education member, one K12 member, and one student (9 members total)
- The Council’s goals are to maximize educational attainment and monitor progress towards its goals
- Additionally, the Council would:
- Establish short and long term attainment goals
- Engage in strategic planning
- Conduct financing planning, study per student funding levels, and continue to make budget recommendations
- Recommend system design and coordination efforts
- Set minimum admissions standards
- Use data to make informed recommendations
- Arbitrate disputes between the two-year and four-year sectors
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.
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