Legislation was introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday that would require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for overenrolled, on-campus classes. If the bill passes and is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (who has been a strong supporter of online education), online courses could go mainstream much more quickly than predicted. At the moment, however, Senate Bill 520 is just a two-page legislative placeholder, or “spot bill,” to be amended with details later.
According to Inside Higher Ed, the bill’s sponsor, Democrat State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said the bill is meant to “break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing courses.” In Fall 2012, more than 472,000 of the 2.4 million students in the California Community Colleges system were put on waiting lists and at the California State University system, only 16 percent of students graduate within four years. Theoretically, increasing capacity to meet student demand for key, gateway courses could improve on-time graduation rates and more efficiently use state funds. The debate, of course, is whether online courses are actually effective and thus appropriate substitutes for traditional courses.
Under the proposed legislation, a nine-member faculty council representing the state’s three public higher ed systems would determine which 50 introductory courses are most oversubscribed and which online equivalents should be eligible for credit. When reviewing online courses, the panel is to consider whether a course:
- Offers instructional support to promote retention;
- Provides interaction between instructors and students;
- Contains proctored exams and assessment tools;
- Uses open-source text books; and
- Includes content recommended by the American Council on Education.
MOOCs provided by Udacity and Coursera, as well as low-cost, self-paced courses from StraighterLine could all be up for consideration—several of which have already gained ACE approval.
Senator Steinberg emphasized at a news conference that the legislation “does not represent a shift in funding priority” for higher education in California, and is not intended to introduce “a substitution for campus-based instruction.” Nevertheless, for the many faculty and university administrators concerned about SB 520’s consequences, the devil may be in the yet-to-be-determined details. We’ll keep you apprised as those details are fleshed out.
The Grapevine project’s annual compilation of data on state funding for higher education shows that 30 states increased their appropriations for higher ed institutions and financial aid from FY12 to FY13. On Tuesday, the
researchers at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers released their tables summarizing initial allocations and estimates reported by states from September 2012 through January 14, 2013. As most states are in the midst of FY13, their budgets for the year are more-or-less finalized; however, some changes could occur due to reporting lag time.
Overall, states are spending just 0.4 percent less on higher education in FY13, compared with FY12—a relatively small decline given that state support for colleges dropped 7.5 percent from FY11 to FY12. The net decrease in this year’s budgets resulted from cuts in just 16 states, with the worst appearing in Florida (8 percent), Alabama (6 percent) and New Jersey (5.5 percent). Another 16 states, including Washington, are showing increases of less than 2 percent, which The Atlantic notes “will likely amount to a cut once inflation takes its bite.” Budgets in the other 18 states indicate more sizable increases, all the way up to 14 percent in Wyoming.
Generally, however, the gains that some universities are receiving this year do little to make up for massive cuts since the recession. States are still collectively spending 10.8 percent less than they were five years ago, when the recession began, and thirty-eight states have decreased their overall higher ed appropriations during that time, according to a Grapevine table. Among those 38, Arizona and New Hampshire cut their budgets by 37 percent and 36 percent respectively and a dozen states, including Washington, sliced funding by over 20 percent.
A news release accompanying the survey data, cited by The Chronicle, states, “Barring a further downturn in the economy, the relatively small overall change … suggests that higher education may be at the beginning stages of a climb out of the fiscal trough caused by the last recession.” However, even if state appropriations continue to stabilize, the Moody’s report discussed in our previous post points out that federal spending, tuition revenue, endowment returns, and other traditional revenue sources for colleges and universities face major challenges in the coming year. We aren’t out of the woods yet.
Last week, Moody’s Investors Service issued a negative short-term outlook for the entire sector of higher education based on its conclusion that every traditional revenue source for even the most elite colleges and universities is under pressure. That pressure, according to the report, is the result of nation-wide economic, technological and public opinion shifts, which are largely beyond institutions’ control.
The outlook report, released annually, articulates the fundamental credit conditions that Moody’s expects higher education will face during the next 12 to 18 months. For the last two years, Moody’s gave elite colleges and research universities a stable forecast; but this year, the following factors contributed to a negative outlook for the entire industry:
Struggling Revenue Sources:
- State appropriations are unlikely to increase meaningfully due to weak economic recovery.
- Federal spending on research and student aid could be truncated in response to the nation’s fiscal concerns.
- Tuition revenue continues to be suppressed by low family incomes and public/political pressure to keep prices down.
- Endowment returns are vulnerable to any economic volatility that could stem from federal tax and budget decisions.
- Donations are not expected to increase and could face pressure as Congress evaluates associated tax deductions.
- Financial diversity is no longer helpful as all revenue streams are strained.
- Student debt and loan default rates have increased and thus challenged the perceived value of a degree.
- High school graduates are declining in number.
- Public and political scrutiny of efficiency and degree value could add to institutions’ list of regulatory requirements.
- New technologies such as online learning and MOOCs could provide new revenue opportunities, but could also undermine traditional higher ed models.
Moody’s analysts warn that revenue streams will never rebound to post-2008 levels and leaders in higher education will need to adapt by thinking strategically and adjusting their operations.
But not all is gloom and doom. Although Moody’s gave higher education a negative outlook, most of the country’s top colleges and universities still hold the strong credit rankings. The UW, for one, continues to maintain a Aaa credit rating—the highest offered by Moody’s. Additionally, the report stressed that the intrinsic value of and demand for higher education remains stable.
Last Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown released a proposed 2013-14 budget that includes substantial increases for higher education—made possible by the passage of Prop 30. For the UC and CSU systems, the proposal provides an ongoing increase of $125.1 million each. This includes $10 million each to expand the delivery of courses through technology and is in addition to the $125 million that UC and CSU will each receive in 2013‑14 for not increasing tuition and fees in 2012‑13, as required by the 2012 Budget Act. In sum, the proposal says “the state’s General Fund contribution to UC and CSU will increase by 5 percent per year in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and by 4 percent in each of the subsequent two years.”
Both higher ed systems had asked for more; but, according to The Chronicle, Gov. Brown said “the gap between what we’re going to give them and what they say they’re going to need” would have to be made up through efficiencies. Cal State system’s chancellor that Mr. Brown’s proposal at least “heads us in the right direction.”
However, in exchange for new money, state institutions are expected to keep tuition and fee levels stable over the next four years. The institutions are required to increase access to online courses and limit resident tuition rates to the first 150 percent of credits needed to graduate. This limitation is an attempt to encourage timely degree completion, reduce student debt, and free up classroom space for other students.
At a news conference Thursday, Governor Brown stated that he would be attending UC and CSU board meetings in the hopes of encouraging both systems to keep tuition prices stable.
The Governor’s budget office released the first set of biennial budgets today. The current Governor proposed a “current law” balanced budget, assuming no new revenue, and a budget with new revenue, appropriating $34.1 billion of Near General Fund State per year, for which all of higher education, including financial aid, would receive nearly $3 billion (or 8.7 percent). As a reminder, Governor Gregoire’s budget proposals are the first of many budgets to be released for the upcoming biennium. The earliest point that the UW will have a sense of its actual anticipated state funding level is late April 2013. In addition, we might see Governor-elect Inslee release his own budget, or a set of budget priorities, in January 2013.
Under Governor Gregoire’s balanced and new law budgets, each of the state’s six baccalaureate institutions would receive slight increases in funding when compared to carry-forward budgets levels, with no new tuition increases or state funding reductions. While the UW has another year of tuition setting authority under HB 1795, the Higher Education Opportunity Act, this budget does not provide any new financial aid funds to cover tuition increases. Note that Education Legacy Trust funding, from which the UW normally received at least $8 million annually, was removed from all public baccalaureate institutions’ budgets and replaced with general fund appropriations.
The 2012 Legislature appropriated $209 million in state funds to the UW for FY13, thus, both of the Governor’s proposed budgets represent an increase in the UW’s state funding for FY14 and FY15. However, the budget bill devotes these increases to covering expenses associated with the UW’s collective bargaining agreements. If any funds remain afterward, they will be available for any other purpose(s).
Please review our budget brief on the Governor’s operating budgets and capital budgets. As usual, let us know if you have any questions.
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.”
On Tuesday, 11 states voted on ballot measures that could impact higher education. The following table (based on one from The Chronicle) summarizes how those measures fared.
YES–the measure passed NO–the measure failed
||Would temporarily increase sales and income taxes in order to raise approx. $6-billion in revenue and stave off $963-million worth of cuts to the public colleges.
||Would allow a $11.3-million bond issue to fund capital for a diagnostic facility at the University of Maine.
||Would let children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates provided they meet certain conditions.
||Would let graduate students form unions and bargain collectively.
||Would raise cigarette taxes and use the revenue to create a Health and Education Trust Fund. About 30 percent of revenue would go to higher education.
||Would require proof of citizenship in order for a person to receive certain state services, which includes attending Montana’s public colleges.
||Would let the state issue a $750-million bond for buildings and upgrades at public and private colleges.
||Would authorize a $120-million sale for certain higher education repairs and improvements.
||Would ban affirmative action programs in the state, including their use in public colleges’ admission policies.
||Would give Rhode Island College up to $50-million for its health and nursing programs’ facilities.
||Would allow the UW and WSU to invest publicly-generated revenue (i.e. parking fees and indirect-cost reimbursement for grants) in corporate stock.
||Would renew the requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote in order to create new taxes or raise existing ones–effectively making it more difficult for the state to generate new revenue for programs including higher education.
Last week, a Los Angeles Times/USC poll found that support for Proposition 30 is dwindling. Only 46 percent of registered voters now approve the California ballot initiative designed to deflect almost $1-billion in state higher-education cuts—a 9-point drop over last month’s poll by the same organizations. Meanwhile, 42 percent of respondents oppose the proposition.
If Prop 30 passes:
- The state’s sales tax would increase by 0.25 percent through 2016;
- Californians earning more than $250,000 would pay higher income taxes through 2018;
- The resulting $6 to 8.5 billion in additional revenue generated each year would allow the state to continue its current level of higher education funding into, at least, the coming year; and
- The University of California system would freeze undergraduate tuition rates.
If Prop 30 fails:
- California community colleges would lose $338 million;
- The California State system would lose $250 million—requiring the system to lay off (by their estimate) 1,500 faculty and staff, reduce next year’s Fall enrollment by about 20,000 students, and increase tuition and fees for in-state students by 5 percent; and
- The University of California system would lose $375 million—resulting in, as System officials declared, a tuition increase of as much as 20 percent.
Proponents of Prop 30 face resistance from the state’s fiscal conservatives and competition from another ballot initiative, Proposition 38, which would raise income taxes through 2024 and direct most of the $10 billion per year in revenue toward K-12. If both bills pass, California’s constitution requires that the proposition with the most votes cancel out the other. This is because Prop 30 and Prop 38 both increase personal income tax rates and could, therefore, be seen as conflicting. However, Prop 38 appears to have little momentum, relative to Prop 30 and it is unlikely that both bills will pass.
A recent Insider Higher Education article describes the inventive deals that a handful of public universities are pursuing in an effort to keep tuition rates from rising. By offering tuition freezes in exchange for either (1) increased state funding or (2) individual student efforts to graduate on time, universities hope to meet public demands to stabilize tuition and also ease the financial burden of doing so.
1. Public institutions can afford tuition freezes if states pick up the slack. On several occasions, the University System of Maryland has successfully encouraged state lawmakers to “buy down” potential tuition increases. And just last Friday, the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents accepted a proposal to freeze undergraduate resident tuition if the state provides an additional $42.6 million over the coming two years. This approach has been successful in some states, but the article mentions a major problem: “many states simply don’t have the money or the political will to invest in education at the moment.” However, even when schools do not expect to receive more state support, these proposals may at least spark conversations about the crucial linkage between falling state appropriations and rising tuition rates.
2. Benefits of better on-time graduation rates may be enough to offset costs of tuition freezes. Getting more students to graduate sooner can improve a university’s ranking, lower its students’ average debt, and make room for more incoming students. For some schools, this is enough incentive to provide tuition freezes in a targeted manner. Last week, leaders of the Indiana University system offered to freeze tuition for students who have earned 60 credits by the end of their sophomore year and are, therefore, on track to graduate within four years. Additionally, UT-Austin will pilot a program next year that would award students who receive Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans with $1,000 of loan forgiveness for each semester they stay on pace to graduate in four years. UT-Austin’s Director of Student Financial Services said the program could save students up to $12,000 over the course of their education.
As public institutions continue to face dwindling state appropriations and increased pressure to stabilize tuition, we may see more of these innovative proposals.
The Economic Revenue and Forecast Council (ERFC) released its September revenue forecast on the 19th. Believe it or not: Anticipated revenues for the current (2011-13) and upcoming (2013-15) biennia were slightly ahead of the previous forecast.
Although only eight months of the current biennium remain, revenues are running $29 million ahead of predicted levels due to better than anticipated employment numbers, construction activity, and real estate excise tax collections.
Projected revenues for the upcoming 2013-15 biennium (FY14 & FY15) were raised by $23 million; but, as the full forecast and press release note, the downside risks resulting from potentially stagnant employment gains, an extremely weak Washington export market, sovereign European debt crisis, and possible federal fiscal cliff threaten these modest gains.
While ERFC will refine the revenue forecast again in November and the Governor will use it as a basis for her budget, she and the Office of Financial Management (OFM) have already committed any possible additional revenue above current forecasted levels to K12. Revenue projections may have increased slightly with the release of this forecast, but required expenditures in the upcoming biennium will far outweigh potential revenues. OFM projects a $1 billion deficit out the gate.
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