Friday, September 20, 2013

Three Radical Ideas for Improving (not Reforming) Higher Education

While watching the annual Gates Postsecondary Education Convening from afar via twitter, I am struck by the apparent absence of discussion about several core underlying issues keeping more students from succeeding in earning college degrees.

We cannot increase the success of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds without ensuring that they are safe, healthy, and ready to learn. Food insecurity is a growing problem in higher education, as revealed by institutional surveys, and hopefully soon tracked by national data (I'm working on it).

Idea #1:  Institute a free/reduced price breakfast and lunch program at all public colleges and universities where at least 1 in 3 students receives a Pell Grant. 

Far too many of today's faculty are ill-equipped to teach the students of tomorrow.  The focus on research has trumped the emphasis on high-quality teaching even at institutions with no research mission.

Idea #2: Make teaching a priority in public higher education. 

a. Require that all new hires have teaching experience of some kind.

b. Require a pedagogical talk in the hiring process.

c. Require bi-annual professional development credits.

There is a well-known and very basic resource problem in higher education. The fewest dollars flow to the neediest students.  Per student spending of about $6000 in community colleges is a travesty.

Idea #3: Focus funding where it can do the most good. Require that all states receiving any Title IV financial aid maintain adequate per-student spending at their community colleges.  Based this on appropriate adequacy funding studies done by state.

None of these answers involve technology, I know. None speak to "quality" because I do not think the evidence on declining quality is solid-- the demographic changes in higher education have collided with the redefining process, and thus it is far from clear that reformers are saying anything more than "these students" aren't as good as yesterday's.

Without three these reforms in place, I don't think the technological solutions constitute anything more than tinkering towards utopia, and any efforts to cut costs could do more harm than good.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Unintended Consequences of Ending Shared Governance

As I wrote in my last post, efficiency-minded legislators are raising questions about the role faculty play in decision-making on campuses across the University of Wisconsin System, and whether shared governance represents an expensive and wasteful practice.

I understand where these folks are coming from. Involving more people in decision-making is costly, in terms of time in particular.   But attending only to those costs without considering the benefits is short-sighted and will generate unintended consequences.  This is because economic evidence indicates that the costly process of shared governance generates cost-savings as well.  It seems that without the cost-savings generated by shared governance, college would be even more expensive for Wisconsin families.

Professor emeritus Robert Martin of Centre College explains this counter-intuitive process in a set of papers written over the last 15 years, and most recently summarizes his conclusions in a paper written for the American Enterprise Institute, titled "Higher education governance: a barrier to cost containment." That paper examines the hypothesis that former student Regent and current Representative Robin Vos expressed at the recent Regents meeting: that "facets of the governance structure push higher education toward higher costs, minimal transparency about outcomes, and a low level of quality control."

Martin finds that Vos is right in one sense-- the governance structure matters for college costs.  But his evidence points to the opposite conclusion that Vos and his colleagues reached-- the answer is increasing the faculty role in governance, not decreasing it. He describes this finding using clear and accessible prose in a piece authored for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "College costs too much because faculty lack power."  In it, he explains that "it is not the "shared" part of "shared governance" that has failed; quite the opposite. The fault lies in the withering away of the shared part. Reason and data alike suggest that the largest part of the problem is that it is administrators and members of governing boards who have too much influence over how resources are used."

In a recent email to me, Martin provided an analysis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the trends mirror those described in his national work. In his words,

 I attach a Word file that contains a summary statistical table for University of Wisconsin-Madison (see below) that corresponds to Table 1 in my SSRN article with Carter Hill on "Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities." There are several things to note. 

1) The dramatic increase in reported spending for instruction, research, and public service after 2008 [which supposedly] came out of overhead and into academics. See my SSRN article on "management" of financial reporting in higher education -- that article will be published this month in Challenge. [Note to readers: this paper concludes that while this apparent resource reallocation might be legitimate, they may also be indicative of a new "management" of financial reporting that simply reclassifies expenses, as frequently done by corporations.]

2) If you look at the pre- and post-2008 staffing patterns for academics versus administrative staffing you will see reductions in academic staffing and increases in administrative staffing after 2008. So, it is hard to explain where the supposed increases in academic spending and reductions in overhead spending could have come from.

3) Throughout the 1987 to 2008 period the university economized on the use of tenure track faculty while rapidly expanding the number of nonacademic professional employees.  If tenure track faculty are the primary cause of higher cost, it is clear they are not very good at looking after their own interest.  Clearly, tenure track faculty would want more of their own and fewer contract and part time faculty and would not prefer more administrative staff.


While I appreciate Robin Vos's attention to college costs, on behalf of Wisconsin families I do hope he will take this information into account when deciding how to work on lowering them.  Relying on instinct rather than evidence could have disastrous consequences for the state's future workforce.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Wisconsin Republicans Rethinking Shared Governance in University of Wisconsin System

At a meeting of the Regents today, Representative Robin Vos suggested that the Wisconsin Legislature Republican caucus is rethinking the faculty's role in governance on UW System campuses, out of a sense that they are keeping the System from being "nimble."  I am concerned that Representative Vos may be unaware of economic research that indicates that faculty involvement in decision-making through shared governance appears to contribute to the containment of college costs.  Reducing faculty power in favor of increasing the administration's relative power could make college less affordable for Wisconsin students.  These unintended consequences of Vos's short-sighted idea deserve close examination, and I urge him to attend to these before pursuing it further.

Here is the document from the Republican working group.

Here is the video from the conference.  Vos begins speaking at the 1:17 minute mark on the first video, and these comments come just after the 1:18 minute mark. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Reality Check: Obama is Standing for Students

Since when did an effort to ensure that students receive a high-quality affordable education in exchange for their financial aid become unconstitutional micromanagement of colleges and universities?

This is where the rubber hits the road, folks. Where the needs of a particularly elite form of academia comes into conflict with the average student's right to an affordable public education. And apparently it's about to get ugly. 

Don't believe the hype. President Obama is not attacking faculty, he is not seeking to destroy public colleges and universities which are the workhorses of higher education, and for pete's sake he is not proposing a pseudo-NCLB for higher education.

The President's main goal is simple:  After decades of hoping that students could hold institutions of higher education and states responsible for providing a high-quality, affordable college experience that leads to degrees, he's calling the nation's attention to the fact that the market isn't working on its own and some really serious regulation is needed.  The federal government is a major financial player in higher education, far more so than in k-12, and it has a responsibility to ensure that the schools it funds do right by their students.  

Despite their loud claims to the contrary, many schools are not currently doing right by their students. Some of them are setting prices so as to absorb all available financial aid and providing students with few supports and long-shots at completing degrees. Others are taking advantage of the availability of student loans to charge the middle-class sky high prices while hiding behind "admissions standards" to leave the majority of students from the 99% out in the cold.  In addition, there are a lot of federal dollars spent unnecessarily, supplanting resources from institutional endowments. Finally, there are plenty of childish states, pulling back on their investments when the federal government provides support. 

All of that should be stopped by holding colleges, universities, and states to the standards that we now hold students.  The problems we face in higher education today are largely due to the behaviors of those institutional actors--not students.  The federal government must use the strings associated with Title IV to ensure that college administrators, boards, and state legislatures behave themselves and let the students and faculty get back to the hard work of education.

That's the goal. It's where Obama is headed, if you'll just give him a chance to get there.

And when he does: NO, this will not make student aid more complicated.  Instead of rules for millions of students we can have a much smaller set of rules for the few thousand institutions. Done right, this will not punish students for the acts of their states and institutions. It will not further push education towards earnings and away from learning.  It should do the opposite-- it focuses on the actual problem-- schools that claim to educate students while merely sifting and winnowing out the ones it doesn't want, schools that recruit students only to leave them behind once checks are signed. It helps direct students towards the states and institutions where their aid will be used well.  It helps ensure that students get degrees--which is the very least they deserve (and come on, don't tell me that in your day you really earned your degree...).

Suggesting the opposite-- suggesting that this effort will hurt students-- is a red herring. It's a line tossed about by privileged elites who have claimed to serve America's middle class while restricting enrollment through selective admissions, and promoting rhetoric that allows some elite colleges to stand on high above their peers, endlessly wealthy and exerting strong influence, helping to push millions of Americans into debt. 

Beware of these scare tactics. The President isn't going to cut students' Pell dollars. He's never going to assign letters grades to each colleges and university.  He's not bringing in standardized tests or value-added modeling for professors, or giving colleges incentives to get rid of teacher tenure or privatize.

Unfortunately, he's also not about to make college--or at least community college-- free.  Now there's something worth critiquing him for.

Sure, the President did make some errors in his plans. He should never have likened this effort to the ridiculous College Scorecard or called them "ratings"-- that trivialized the approach.  He should have challenged schools to improve to certain standards before the move to link aid to institutional performance rolls out.  Race to the Top should never have been a part of this at all, since doing this fast has never been a good way to bring about quality change. He should never have mentioned MOOCs or other such untested approaches to cutting costs, and in fact, he needn't have mentioned specific practices for cost-cutting at all.  That can and should be left up to the institutions to deal with-- he simply needs to tell them what goal posts to aim for and what the rules of engagement are.   For example, he should have reiterated the importance of educators to education, and assured the faculty of their very real place in affordable higher education. He should have placed much more emphasis on the importance of public institutions and the role that states must play in adequately funding them if those states want to get any Title IV funds for their private or profit schools.   

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.  The fact is that the current financial aid system has benefitted colleges and universities-- and states-- far more than students for a very long time, and President Obama is finally going to try to do something about it.  Did he get the plan exactly right on this initial roll out?  Nope. Will it be accomplished in the next few years? No way.   But that isn't and wasn't the point.  He is standing up for students and families and telling higher education administrators and states that they must get some skin in the game-- or get out of Title IV.   It's about damn time. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What We Need to Hear from the President

Reviewing the range of responses to President Obama's plan to reduce college costs, and the questions that are being raised on Twitter, it seems important that the Administration clarify a few things sooner rather than later.

1. This effort to reduce college costs is a first step and thus it is not intended to solve all problems.  The President should say something more specific about the ultimate goal and what it would look like in practice. Are we working towards a free community college education? Are we trying to close achievement gaps?  What is the intended outcome down the road?

2. This is not NCLB for higher education.  The President needs to assure the public that he is not calling for standardized testing, the end of professorial tenure, or a focus on specific fields or majors.  He is trying to help more Americans access the quality post secondary education they seek, not water down quality or redefine what matters.

3. This is an effort to protect public higher education, not destroy it.  This needs to be said loud and clear, and the President's commitment to community colleges in particular must be emphasized.  Too many community college leaders are distressed at the roll-out of these plans, and I did not think that was intended.

4. This is also not an attempt to end for-profit or private higher education.  The purpose is to ensure that Title IV is spent in ways that support national needs, not to define the entire range of opportunities that can exist.  It is certainly possible to support private and for-profit educational providers without insisting that the federal government should also subsidize them.

5.  The President is not insisting that everyone must go to college-- he is  trying to help make the American Dream a reality by decoupling family income from educational opportunities.

Now, if I'm correct that these are all statements the President and his Administration can agree with, let's move on to figuring out how to take aim at the underlying inefficiencies in the current financial aid system using institutional accountability.

I think it would be a mistake to subject all institutions to metrics anytime in the near future. Most colleges and universities are good actors, keeping college costs down as long as states do their part. What we need to do as a starting point is to get a handle on (a) the bad actors and (b) federal investments that are ineffective and unnecessary.

Which schools fall into those categories? Here's a start.


1. Institutions whose primary revenue source is Title IV.  Let's say those who get at least 75% of funding from Pell and/or student loans, for example.  These schools aren't operating based on market demand but rather are propped up by federal aid.

2. Institutions with selective admissions (say less than 75% admitted) and low average graduation rates (less than 50% over 5 years).


1. Institutions with large endowments per student.

2. Institutions serving very few Pell recipients (regardless of whether this is due to admissions practices, costs, or a decision to simply be small).

If we could ensure that federal student aid no longer supported these schools, we would see fewer students attend these schools, their prices would likely fall (or they would close), and/or at minimum we'd save money that could be spent elsewhere.

If that were the first stage, then the Department of Education could begin by publishing these lists of problematic schools, issuing a warning that they have three years to get off the list or lose Title IV.

The other big issue is how to get states back to the table.  There could be a separate list of states that are put on probation based on a failure to match federal investments in higher education with state investments.  All colleges and universities in those states should be put at risk of losing Title IV-- including the privates and for-profits-- and given 5 years to address the problems.

None of this is perfect, of course, but they get us thinking about a more targeted, incremental approach to reform.  What do you think? What would you include?

Friday, August 23, 2013

How to Prevent Creaming in Higher Education Performance Regimes?

One of the most prominent concerns raised about President Obama's proposed performance-based funding plan for higher education is that it could reduce access by encouraging creaming.  In other words, what's to stop colleges and universities from simply raising the bars for entry, tightening their admissions policies, in order to improve graduation rates and lower default rates?

Good question.

I'd like to make a few points and then open this up for discussion.  It's one of the big areas that needs bright minds thinking hard in search of solutions, and I hope you'll jump in with good ideas.  We're going to have to look far and wide for solutions, as we can expect that folks in education probably don't have all the answers.

1. The problem already exists.  The number of colleges raising their admissions requirements over time tells this story.  So let's not pretend like we're creating a new problem. The question is whether we're making it worse.

2. NCLB approached this challenge through the use of value-added modeling.  It didn't work there and it's probably not going to work here either, especially since it's hard to believe that we can possible account for all inputs that are external to college, in order to focus on gains made by the college itself.  Now, I know many people will disagree with me on this, including my former student Robert Kelchen, so be sure to read up on their work on the topic.

3. A weaker version of value-added modeling is risk-adjusted metrics, a regression based approach to accounting for intial student differences when looking at outcomes. I'm not sure this is going to fly either, and the Left doesn't like it since it seems to perpetuate the idea that we should "expect" students from disadvantaged families to do worse in college.  No one actually wants that, and so we try things NCLB-style,  demanding growth in graduation rates for subgroups of students. But that too doesn't prevent colleges from admitting fewer students from a given subgroup.

4. Prohibition of creaming via more metrics.  Let's say we stipulate terms regarding enrollment and admissions, in addition to outcomes.  These may have to be differentiated according to college type.  For example, in order to receive Title IV aid, a college must :
  • Enroll at least 100 students who are Pell-eligible (all colleges) and
  • Maintain a % Pell that meets or exceeds the state average among high school graduates (all public colleges and universities) 
  • Admit at least 50% of Pell applicants (all private colleges and universities)
  • OR: Use a lottery process for admission into at least 50% of the entering class
Yes, this means that very small colleges would have to be very diverse in order to participate in Title IV. It also means that all colleges and universities may have to adjust their admissions standards somewhat and change their recruiting practices. Is that a bad thing?  If they don't like it, they simply need to prove their mettle by using a lottery for admission.  Then we can really get a handle on their value-added!

Let's talk this one through further.

5. Prohibition and regulation.  Schools could be selected for an audit based on troubling trends in their admissions data.  If they were found guilty of creaming, they could be put on probation and monitored for a period of time.  If they failed that, they'd be kicked out of Title IV.

We must also ask, how much creaming might be tolerable? If the use of performance standards forced more colleges to help low-income students graduate, while reducing access for some other students, at what point would this become intolerable?

Ok, enough from me-- what are your great ideas?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Mr. President: Don’t Cave to the Higher-Education Lobby

Cross-posted from the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
Over all, I’m a fan of President Obama’s proposal to rate colleges and link the results to financial aid. The plan is to give students attending institutions rated high—on such measures as tuition and graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of low-income students enrolled—larger grants, as well as lower-interest loans. The proposal ends the “tinkering” that most higher-education reform has pursued; it aims squarely at the main drivers of college costs: private and for-profit institutions (and their happy followers, the elite public flagships) and states.

That is the approach my colleagues and I argued for in a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute. “Recent national opinion polls indicate that 74 percent of Americans believe that higher education is unaffordable, and 92 percent of college presidents agree,” we noted. “While analysts have offered several potential explanations for this perception, one has not garnered much attention: The lack of perceived affordability may stem from the financial aid system’s strong focus on the behaviors of ‘student-consumers’ rather than education providers.” Several recent policy papers from HCM Strategists, Education Trust, New America, and others have taken a similar line.

Instead of merely tying accountability to campus aid (a paltry sum), this time Obama seems to be talking about all of the programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, such as Pell Grants, federal Supplemental Educational Grants, Perkins Loans, and Federal Subsidized and Unsubsidized Direct Loans. He’d better be, since if he simply aims at the Pell Grant, he’ll be taking on the only need-based entitlement program that does heavy lifting. Colleges that won’t commit to providing accessible, affordable, high-quality postsecondary education should not be receiving federal Title IV funds, period.

The devil, as always, is in the details. I’m very, very wary of poorly designed accountability metrics. In elementary and secondary education, these have been a disaster, because they aim at teachers (whose performance is as much a symptom of context as a cause of outcomes), they focus on standardized tests associated with a narrow set of educational intentions, and they are focused only on public schools. That’s absurd. In contrast, higher-education accountability should be aimed at decision makers (administrators and states); and measures like how many students complete programs and degrees should be directed at all institutions receiving Title IV via their students. Don’t forget that American higher education is dominated in its rhetoric and the “standards” it sets by private institutions, which have knowingly helped the public false equate cost with quality and selectivity with “good schooling.” Clearly a different metric is required.

Obama needs to unmask the devil here, ripping off the shield behind which institutions hide. If expensive schools are so “worthwhile,” then they should be able to admit the kinds of students that public universities admit, rather than creaming off the top. If their expenses are so merited, we should see bigger gains at private elites than at we do at less-expensive institutions, not just higher graduation rates. None of that is happening now.

Obama needs to call out the bad actors in public higher education too—those institutions that fancy themselves private and, in doing so, discourage social mobility for those who need it most. His decision to stand at a New York State public institution today rather than at the quasi-private University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is a good one. He is standing to protect those comprehensive state public universities and their students.

Now, what I’m unimpressed by is that Obama felt the need to take a sideswipe at Pell recipients when releasing his plans. Why is he suggesting that we need to stretch out the disbursement of Pell Grants across the semester when there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this is necessary, effective, or even possible for colleges to do without raising costs? I can think of just one source of this idea, a project dubbed “Aid Like a Paycheck” from the Institute for College Access and Success and MDRC, a research group. It’s really sad if Obama has been pitched this idea based on two small case studies at two exceptional California community colleges.

Look at Twitter today. Students are desperate for their “FAFSA dollars” to arrive so they can pay their bills. College costs must be paid upfront, so aid must be awarded that way too. Financial-aid officers have enough on their plates already; they don’t need to deal with multiple payments. And, most important, the mythical Pell recipients who supposedly take their aid and transfer only to get a second Pell are about as real as President Reagan’s  welfare queens in limos. You don’t need to drink that Kool-Aid and attack poor students, Mr. President: Take on the hard work of getting American higher education focused on the needs of students rather than the needs of institutions.

You can do it, and we Americans will back you every step of the way, as long as you do not cave to the private higher-education lobby. Do that, and this was all for nothing.