Office of Planning and Budgeting

The University of Washington was ranked the 14th best university in the world by U.S. News & World Report’s inaugural “Best Global Universities Ranking,” which was released on Tuesday.

Unlike U.S. News’s national rankings, which focus on undergraduate admissions data and graduation rates, these new rankings were based on research-heavy factors such global research reputation, number of publications, PhDs awarded, and highly cited papers (learn more about how the rankings were calculated).  This methodological difference helps explains the odd fact that U.S. News ranks the UW 14th globally, but 48th nationally.

“This is about faculty productivity and prestige … It is meaningful for certain things and not necessarily meaningful for other things. We get that. This is about big muscular research universities doing what research universities claim is their mission,” U.S. News Editor, Brian Kelly, told The Washington Post.

The 2015 Best Global Universities rankings include 500 institutions and 49 countries, and provide breakdowns by region, country, and 21 subject areas. The U.S. dominated the rankings with 16 institutions in the top 20, and 134 institutions on the list overall.  Germany had the second most institutions on the list, with 42, followed by the United Kingdom, with 38. China, which has received a lot of attention in the higher education world lately, also did well with 27 schools among the top 500.

The UW ranks highly on several other global lists:  15th worldwide by the Academic Ranking of World Universities and 26th by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

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.

Of the nearly 900 schools that received federal money for research and development (R&D) in FY 2011, the UW ranks first among public institutions and second overall in terms of federal research funding. According to a study by the National Science Foundation (NSF), approximately 20 percent of all federal R&D support went to just 10 universities. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed those universities, Table 1 summarizes their findings.

Johns Hopkins University, a private institution, topped the list with nearly $1.9 billion—more than doubling what any other university received that year. The majority of Johns Hopkins’ federal funding came from the Dept. of Defense and NASA. The university also brought in billions via fundraising efforts.

The UW came in second with almost $950 million in federal R&D funding—the most of any public school. The majority of the UW’s money came from the Dept. of Health and Human Services; however, the University was the top beneficiary of NSF funding, receiving more than $145 million in 2011.

Year after year, the same schools consistently receive the most money, said Ronda Britt, a survey statistician with the NSF. 24/7 Wall St. quotes her as saying, these universities “have big research programs that receive a lot of support year after year, and have a lot of infrastructure that helps them keep the money stable.” This holds true for the UW, which has ranked first among public schools since 1974. Having large endowments was another commonality of the top 10 schools, yet federal funding covered the bulk of R&D expenditures in all cases.

As these universities rely heavily on the federal government to support their research, many are concerned about the sweeping cuts of sequestration. The UW and other universities are preparing for a range of possible impacts. As described in our joint brief, the sequester could reduce the UW’s federal grant and contract support by an estimated $75M to $100M during FY13. The UW community is encouraged to remain cautious and conservative in spending federal awards and in planning for future federal funding.

Dartmouth will stop granting college credit for students with high AP test scores beginning with the class of 2018, which will enter in the Fall of 2014. Currently, Dartmouth students with scores of four or five (out of five) on an AP test can have certain lower-level courses waived, earn placement into higher-level courses, or receive credit toward their degrees. When the new policy takes effect, the first two of options will still be available, but students will not be able to earn credits. Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction proposed the change in policy and the faculty passed it with an “overwhelming majority,” according to Inside Higher Ed.  However, faculty members say they “still value AP courses – just not as a replacement for a college classroom.” 

Dartmouth changed the policy after its psychology department performed an experiment to assess the college-level competence of top AP scorers. Students who had earned a five on the AP psychology test were asked to take a placement exam based on the final for intro psychology; 90 percent of those students failed, according to the college. The researchers also found that the students who failed and then chose to take intro psychology did not perform better than their peers who had never taken AP psychology or who had scored less than a five. These results challenge those of an independed study published by College Board. College Board officials say they question Dartmouth’s results and believe the college has an obligation to share the details of its experiment.

There are concerns that the college’s change in policy will discourage high school students from accepting the challenge of an AP course and/or could keep students on campus longer than they would if college credit were granted for their scores. Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction plans to review the policy in three years.

In Washington, RCW 28B.10.053 requires that institutes of higher education “recognize the equivalencies of at least one year of course credit and maximize the application of the credits toward lower division general education requirements that can be earned through successfully demonstrating proficiency on examinations, including but not limited to advanced placement and international baccalaureate examinations.”

On Friday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a rough implementation plan for a set of initiatives that could affect biomedical studies and the faculty, postdoctoral, and student researchers who conduct them. Three working groups proposed the plan back in June and mean for it to guide, diversify, and improve biomedical research through new grant programs and guidelines.

The biomedical workforce working group recommended that the NIH:

  • Help students prepare for careers by providing institutions with additional grants for training and professional development;
  • Encourage graduate students to complete their degrees on-time by capping the number of years they can receive NIH funds;
  • Urge institutions to financially commit to their researchers by slowly reducing the percentage of NIH funds that go toward faculty salaries; and
  • Support the decision-making of prospective graduate students and postdoctoral researchers by asking that NIH-funded institutions provide data on student career outcomes.

The working group on diversity was founded after an NIH report revealed that black researchers were underrepresented in grant applicant pools and that, when they did apply, they were significantly less likely to receive NIH grants relative to their white counterparts. The group called for the NIH to: 

  • Help bridge diversity gaps by implementing a system of career mentorship “networks” for underrepresented minority students;
  • Support under-funded colleges that have a history of training underrepresented minorities in the sciences by considering them for a “well-funded, multi-year” competitive grant program;
  • Establish a committee to address implicit or explicit biases in the NIH peer review system; and
  • Experiment with completely anonymizing grant applications by removing the names of researchers and their institution.

Lastly, the working group on data and informatics asked that the NIH develop a better framework for information exchange and fund more fellowships and training in statistics and other quantitative areas.

These initiatives may sound familiar as many have been pursued, yet subsequently aborted in the past due to a lack of funding. This time may be no different if Congress fails to resolve the fiscal cliff and mandatory spending cuts that could slash the NIH’s budget by 8.2 percent in the coming year.

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.”

As a means of both acknowledging and analyzing the recession’s impact on students, this year’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) included a new set of questions asking how students’ finances affect their stress and academic activities. Approximately 15,000 first-year and senior students from “a diverse group of 43 institutions” responded to the new addendum.  The results, which were released last week, indicate that “finances were a significant concern for the majority of students.” 

As seen in Table 5 from the official report:

  • The majority of students frequently worried about paying for college and regular expenses.
  • Roughly 1 in 3 students said financial concerns interfered with their academic performance.
  • About 30 percent said they frequently chose not to buy required academic materials due to cost.
  • More students looked into working more hours than into borrowing more money as a way to cover costs.
  • Approximately 3 in 4 students still agreed that college is a good investment.

In addition to these findings, the study found that over 55 percent of full-time seniors said that their choice of major was influenced by factors such as ability to find a job and/or the prospect of career advancement.  Yet, 89 percent of students overall said the most influential factor in choosing a major was still how well it fit with their talents and academic interests.

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.

Although other nations continue to outperform the U.S. in terms of educational attainment, the Pew Research Center reported yesterday that record numbers of young Americans are attending and completing college. Of Americans aged 25 to 29 in 2012, 33 percent have completed at least a bachelor’s degree and 63 percent have completed some college—up from 17 and 34 percent respectively in 1971.

The NY Times noted that this is welcome news following the “education reversal” of the early 2000s, when the percentage of young Americans (ages 25 to 29) earning bachelor’s degrees leveled off and was surpassed by the share of “prime age adults” (ages 45 to 64) receiving degrees. Now, this trend “has vanished or been reversed by recent improvements in the education attainment of young adults,” according to the report.

The authors posit that more young Americans may have recently pursued (and earned) degrees in higher education as a means of weathering the job drought caused by the 2007-09 Great Recession. However, the report acknowledges that the portion of young adults attending and completing college has generally increased since 1980. This long-term trend it attributes to improved public opinions regarding the importance of a college education. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, 75 percent of Americans agreed that, in order to get ahead in life, a college education is necessary (up from only 36 percent in 1978).

Unfortunately, the fact remains that other countries are not only achieving higher levels educational attainment than the U.S., their rate of improvement outpaces ours. If the U.S. is to reclaim its title as a global leader in higher education, we will need greater gains than this in the coming years.

A landmark study from 1990 classified 212 US institutions as liberal arts colleges, but new research shows a 39 percent decline in that number—only 130 institutions currently meet the original study’s classification criteria. Of the 82 institutions no longer classified as liberal arts colleges, a handful were subsumed by larger institutions, while about half had shifted their mission away from the standard liberal arts definition.

Historically, definitions of liberal arts colleges (including Carnegie Classifications) have highlighted their focus on undergraduate studies; selective admissions; small class sizes; emphasis on nurturing diverse perspectives and personal growth; and de-emphasis on cultivating professional skills. According to the more recent study, however, many liberal arts institutions are now offering more “professional” programs and incorporating more research into their curricula. The authors speculate that liberal arts colleges may be making this shift away from their standard definition in response to economic pressures. For example, schools may be attempting to:

  • Offset dwindling revenue streams by attracting new segments of the market;
  • Remain competitive in a market flooded by online and for-profit institutions; or
  • Accommodate students’ increased focus on vocational preparation.

To expand on that last point, recent federal and state-level preoccupation with graduates’ potential earnings has put liberal arts colleges in a difficult position as degrees in traditional liberal arts fields (i.e. social sciences and humanities) may be less lucrative for graduates than other degrees (i.e. professional or STEM degrees). For example, according to CollegeMeasures.org, the average first-year earnings of a graduate with a four-year degree in the State of Virginia are about $30,000 if the degree was in sociology or about $46,000 if the degree was in civil engineering.

A widely-regarded strength of the US higher education system is its diversity. However, if liberal arts colleges shift their missions to include the research and career-preparatory goals of other schools, the system may become more homogeneous—leaving students with fewer educational options.

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