Office of Planning and Budgeting

Last week, the National Commission of Higher Education published an open letter calling on “every college and university president and chancellor to make retention and completion a critical campus priority” and asserting that such efforts are “an economic and moral imperative.” Six higher-ed associations assembled the Commission in 2011 at President Obama’s request. The 18 college presidents that form the Commission’s membership come from every sector, except for-profits, and were tasked with investigating strategies that individual schools can use to improve graduation rates.

The NY Times quotes Dr. E. Gordon Gee, chairman of the Commission, as saying, “We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate.”  Although enrollment rates are strong, nearly half of all college students nationwide fail to earn a degree within six years (79 percent of
entering freshman graduate from the UW within six years).

Completion efforts should take into consideration the changing face of higher ed: first-generation, mid-career, part-time, and veteran students are an ever-increasing share of the nation’s student body. The report notes that “adult learners are far less likely than their traditional-age peers to complete their degrees” and will need flexible schedules, more financial assistance, and targeted student services in order to succeed.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • Narrowing course options so that students prioritize completion;
  • Putting someone in charge of overseeing completion efforts; and
  • Giving credit for previous learning.

The Commission asks colleges to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions and to eschew inflating their graduation rates by admitting only the best-prepared, lowest-risk students and/or by making it easier for students to pass.

The report acknowledges, however, that colleges need assistance in these completion endeavors, saying, “Disinvestment in higher education is terribly damaging and undermines efforts to expand and enhance academic and support services for students.”

The Commission believes the report will trigger a sense of urgency among leaders (academic or otherwise) and, hopefully, meaningful action.

Two years ago at the annual Council of Independent Colleges, a group of private-college presidents advocated for limiting the amount of financial aid awarded on criteria other than need—usually referred to as “merit-based” financial aid. Although the presidents received an enthusiastic response from the Council, little action followed. However, last Saturday at this year’s Council meeting, the conversation was revisited and two encouraging developments suggest progress may be more conceivable this time.

First, the presidents unveiled a draft “statement of principle,” which they hope will unite colleagues who believe that meeting financial need should be the highest priority of aid policies. Titled “High Tuition/High Discount Has No Future,” the statement articulates that the merit-aid/tuition discounting model is unsustainable and those signing their support acknowledge they’ve contributed to the problem. The statement cites a 2009 study that found “the increased use of merit aid is associated with a decrease in enrollment of low-income and minority students, particularly at more selective institutions.”

Second, David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, revealed information from preliminary conversations with U.S. Justice Department officials regarding ways in which groups of presidents could discuss their tuition and/or financial aid policies without penalty and, hopefully, reach collective agreements to make college more affordable. This is significant as the Overlap Group, a set of elite universities that joined forces on admissions and financial-aid decisions for several years, faced antitrust charges by the federal government in 1991. The federal case effectively ended any meaningful collaboration on such topics, keeping schools in the dark about each other’s financial aid and admissions strategies.

“The fear, obviously, is that unilateral disarmament” in the merit-aid race won’t work, said one of the efforts’ leaders according to The Chronicle. Presidents worry that increasing need-based aid and decreasing merit aid, which is used to attract top students, will result in less robust enrollment and less prestige. But hopefully between the statement of principle, which could align presidents behind common goals, and discussions with the federal government, which could result in permissible collaboration, some progress will be made and the game of financial-aid chicken can end.

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.

In 2009, the National Research Council received a request from Congress for a “report that examines the health and competitiveness of America’s research universities vis-à-vis their counterparts elsewhere in the world”.

Responding to the request, the NRC assembled a 22-member panel of university and business leaders and mandated them to identify the “top ten actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century”.

The panel released its final report last week under the title Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. The following were the strongest themes:

  • State and federal governments must increase their investment in research universities, allow these institutions more autonomy and agility, and reduce their regulatory burden: The panel identified the state and federal governments as the key actors in the strategy it proposed; indeed, seven of its ten recommendations were primarily aimed at them. In one of its more ambitious statements, the panel recommended that states should strive to restore and maintain per-student funding for higher education to the mean level for the 15-year period 1987-2002, adjusted for inflation. In Washington, this translates into recommending a per-FTE funding increase of between 70% and 80%. The panel acknowledged that this could be difficult to implement in the near term given current state budget challenges and shifting state priorities, but nevertheless stressed that “any loss of world-class quality for America’s public research institutions seriously damages national prosperity, security, and quality of life.”

  • Strengthen the role of business and industry in the research partnership: The panel recommended that tax incentives be put in place to encourage businesses to invest in partnerships with universities both to produce new research and to define new graduate degree programs. It also encouraged business leaders and philanthropists to help increase the participation and success of women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

  • Research universities should strive to increase their cost-effectiveness and productivity: The panel recommended that universities should “strive to contain the cost escalation of all ongoing activities […] to the inflation rate or lower through improved efficiency and productivity”. However, it made no mention of the difficulties raised in the previous NRC report on productivity concerning the impact of cost-reduction measures on quality.

The panel’s recommendations are not novel: they have already been made by multiple parties in the higher education sector over the last few years. However, given the weight of the signatures on the report, this document may prove useful in raising the profile of higher education in upcoming budget battles both at the state and federal level.