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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Research Update: Unmarried Parents in College

In 2010, UW-Madison graduate student Kia Sorensen and I published a paper in the Future of Children about college access and success among single parents attending college. We utilized data from the 2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) and the latest NPSAS just came out for 2012.

I notice the following trends related to this population. 
  1. The representation of single parents among undergraduates grew again. In the 1980s it was 7% and by 2008 it was 13%-- in 2012 it was 15.2%.
  2. That growth was entirely among women, not men.  The fraction of male undergraduates were are single parents remained steady at 8%, while the fraction of female undergraduates who are single parents grew from 17% in 2088 to 20.7% in 2012.
  3. The racial/ethnic differences in single parenting changed slightly, creeping upwards by a point for non-Hispanic white students and down a point for Asian students.
The situation for single parents on college campuses nationwide has not improved much over the last several years.  The Institute for Women's Policy Research is doing important work in this area and it's worth reading up on.  We need to be concerned about the supports provided to these parents, given how much is riding on their success.  In this latest data release, I'm  most troubled by the indication that rates of borrowing large amounts of money for college are much higher for single parents than for other students.   College has inter-generational benefits, and institutions need to be equipped to ensure they assist in that transfer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Are Students Really Academically Adrift? Rethinking the Assessment of “Limited Learning” on College Campuses

Four years ago I attended a presentation at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in which Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa previewed the findings of Academically Adrift, their influential book published in 2010.  In a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrotethat this “cool study” was producing some interesting results.  Most importantly, I reported, that it seemed like the learning gains identified by the research “didn’t look like much.”  I was concerned, for sure, and thus wasn’t surprised when the authors eventually subtitled their book “Limited Learning on College Campuses.”

 Fast forward, and after attending a presentation at this year’s ASA in New York last week, I’ve come to question my assessment—and theirs.   At the time, I was looking at percentage point gains over time, and we know that these are not a good way to assess effect sizes since they do not take into account the amount of variation in the sample. Once the gains are standardized, Arum and Roksa find that students tested twice, four years apart, improve their scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment by an average of 0.46 standard deviations.  Now that’s a number we can begin to seriously consider.

Is a gain of 0.46 sd evidence of “limited learning” and something to sniff at?  As I said back in 2009, we need a frame of reference in order to assess this.   In the abstract, an effect size means little if anything at all.

For their part, the authors point to a review of research by Ernie Pascarella and Pat Terenzini indicating that on tests given at the time, students in the 1980s gained about 1 standard deviation.  Doesn’t that mean students learn less today than they once did, and that that’s a problem?  Actually, no.

Scores cannot simply be compared across different tests. The scales on tests differ and can only be linkedby administering the same test to comparable people. Clearly, the CLA was not administered to students attending college in the 1980s.  Nor, for that matter, were students then comparable in demographic characteristics to the students of today, or were the conditions of testing the same.

Certainly, the authors know this and it is why they seek to replicate their findings with different tests and samples.  There is some evidence that the effect size of about 0.44-0.47 holds up.  But the purpose of the replication, their main focus, is on whether the magnitude of the gains are the same—they are not using replication to think about whether the effect size is large or small.

So, let’s go back to that critical question.  It was during Josipa Roksa’s ASA presentation last week that I felt we finally had a reasonable answer.  Her talk focused on inequality in learning, and she showed several achievement gaps.   This is one good way to benchmark an effect size and it’s commonly done in k-12.  When educational interventionists seek to examine the size of a program’s impact on achievement, they often compare it to the magnitude of the black-white achievement gap in math, which is about one standard deviation.

The same exercise with the impact of 4-years of college on learning as measured by the CLA is illuminating.   The learning gap in parental education among first-year students in the Academically Adrift sample (e.g. the differences in CLA scores between students with a high school-educated parent and students whose parents completed graduate school) is 0.47 standard deviations.  The black-white gap is 0.79 standard deviations.  These are highly relevant comparisons, given that the posited benefits of colleges are thought to be especially strong and important for students facing more disadvantages.

Thus, the learning gains made during college are equivalent in size to the advantage that a student from an educationally-advantaged family holds over a first-generation student.  They are also almost two-thirds the size of the black/white gap.   In this sense, these are sizable gains. 

However, advantaged students make bigger gains during college such that the parental education gap is 0.54 standard deviations four years later.  This is entirely unsurprising, given the body of evidence indicating that colleges and universities are prioritizing the desires of elite students over the real educational needs of those for whom college is essential to social mobility.

Social inequalities are very hard to close—we won’t be reassigning children to new parents anytime soon. But four years of college clearly raises student achievement, and it is an intervention we can promote and can afford.  The findings from Academically Adrift tell a very different story than its subtitle suggests.  On average, college is transformative for learning, and the real tragedy is that higher education does not focus more attention on the neediest students in order to close the gaps that affect the stability and fabric of our everyday lives.


Monday, August 12, 2013

New Evidence on Need-Based Grant Aid

Ben Castleman and Bridget Long of Harvard University just issued a terrific new paper on the impacts of a Florida need-based grant distributed to students across the state.  Using a rigorous regression-discontinuity design, the authors make several contributions to the study of the impacts of financial aid by tacking a couple of of tough questions:
  • Does need-based aid promote college completion?
  • Who benefits most from need-based aid? Is it the highest-achievers to whom merit aid is often targeted?
They find that YES, need-based aid (without any performance criteria) produces strong and statistically significant impacts on credits earned and degree completion.  Specifically the authors find that $1,000 more of grant eligibility increased the probability of staying continuously enrolled through the spring semester of students' freshman year by 3.3 percentage points, increased the cumulative number of credits students completed after four years by 2.3 credits, and increased the probability of earning a bachelor’s degree within five, six, and seven years by 2.5, 3.5, and 4.0 percentage points, respectively. This is very similar to what my team is learning from studying a Wisconsin grant program.

They also find that the impacts of need-based aid are strongest for students who did well in high school but are below the cut-off for the Florida Bright Futures grant, again mirroring findings from Wisconsin. 

Critically, the authors also note that most students got this need-based grant just once-- as in Wisconsin, many lost it between the first and second years of college. How much more effective might financial aid be if we made it easier for students to retain it?  

In short, the answers do not surprise me at all and lend important empirical evidence to a debate that has been tilted towards merit & performance aid mainly because of a lack of tests on the need-based aid.


Policymakers:  Please read this carefully before jumping to the conclusion that you must change the structure of need-based aid to promote college completion -- it is already doing so.  Changes could be positive or could undermine effectiveness.  In fact, the authors conclude: "Overall, our results suggest that not only does need-based aid have a positive effect on persistence and degree completion, but also that increasing the award amounts of current aid programs could have beneficial effects." 

States and Colleges and Universities:  Investments in well-prepared students who aren't making your merit cutoffs are good bets for cost-effective investments in need-based aid.  Mark Schneider and I have been saying this for a long time.   Consider making your money really pay off.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

UVA: Poster Child for Empty Promises and False Hopes

Just a few years ago, we the people of UW-Madison were hearing quite a bit about the flagship university of another state -- the University of Virginia.  Our Chancellor at the time, Biddy Martin, is from Virginia, and lauded UVA's efforts to gain autonomy from the state while also increasing affordability through its "Access UVA" program.

I vehemently and repeatedly disagreed with Martin's assessment of UVA and its "successes" at the time, but to little avail.  She managed to convince most of the university that a semi-divorce from the state would allow for financial flexibilities that would help to make college more affordable. While some of her plans were thwarted by the rest of Wisconsin, she got the vote of the Faculty Senate and to this day, many students and faculty speak of her efforts as if they made UW-Madison more affordable.

In point of fact, they did not, and today even the poster child she commended-- UVA-- fell to pieces. Access UVA will no longer be a grants program, instead it will be scaled back and shifted to include a sizable amount of loans.  Students from low-income families will graduate with $14,000 in debt (if they escape after just 4 years--unlikely) and other students with up to $28,000.

Access UVA, said President Teresa Sullivan, wasn't "sustainable."  There's an end-stop to her statement that makes you wonder if she and the school recognize that the result was not inevitable but rather stemmed directly from the political and policy choices made over the last decade.  Now UVA must face facts: its costs of attendance are high, its support from the state of Virginia is low, and it is going to ask students from poor families to graduate with debt amounting to a third or more of their families' annual income.  These things don't just happen.

High-tuition high-aid models of financing higher education were formulated and evaluated at a time when college students were on average wealthier, whiter, and smaller in number.  It was perhaps possible to feel proudly progressive about taking tuition from the top 75% and redistributing aid to the bottom 25% (or even 90/10).  No longer.  Today about 80% of students feel college is unaffordable, and yet they have to pay high tuition to make the top 20% happy in their glorified teeny-tiny classes, lush campuses, and elitist environments. Only a fraction of that 80% gets any significant grant aid, while the rest carry debt.  In this model, 80% of the students bear the brunt of the education of the top 20%, who escape from their college party years with debt that Mommy and Daddy pay off on graduation day.

The student leader at UVA who objected to these changes perfectly described the real underlying problem when he said "[but] there are increasingly few places left to streamline or cut back on to make these ends meet without impacting the quality of education or student experience.”   There it is-- we need to spend a lot to have high quality.  Affordability be damned.

Anyone who's taken a stroll across UVA's lawns knows that it would be perfectly possible to have a darned good college education for the students of the state at a fraction of what they are spending now. Sure, it wouldn't be the same-- but times they are changing. And it is far less tenable for colleges and universities to throw up their ivy-covered walls and say "sorry you cost too much" to poor students than to insist that they take action to lower their costs for all students, to make college opportunities for all Americans the realities they should and must be.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Thoughts About the Future of UW-Madison? Please Share!

We are welcoming a new chancellor to UW-Madison this fall, along with many other new leaders.  I have been receiving many emails from colleagues and students expressing feelings (both positive and negative) about campus life and the direction it is taking, and in response I will soon begin to host Room for Debate- style forums on key topics. The intention is to provide our community with a sense of the array of opinions, and share insights with our administrators-- including Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

I welcome your participation. Please email me at with suggestions as to what questions the forums should be asking, and who you'd like to hear from.   This is open to anyone in the UW-Madison community, very broadly defined-- including community members, people working at other institutions, etc.

In addition, please email me if you are willing to contribute your opinion to the forums.  If you have a compelling reason to write anonymously (and there are many) I will be happy to publish you that way.

The first several forums will address these topics, so please let me know right away if you want to write about any of them:

1. How should the UW-Madison community work to ensure that its relationship with the people of the state of Wisconsin improves over the next 10 years?

2. What rules of conduct or guidelines should govern the interaction of private philanthropy, including UW Foundation, with UW-Madison?

3. What role should academic deans play with regard to academic departments moving forward?

4. How should UW-Madison work to create new leaders to fill administrative positions at the university in coming years?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lessons for Higher Ed from Health Care

The New York Times has been running a terrific series helping to illustrate why costs of healthcare in this country are so incredibly out of control. Today's story is masterful in the way it breaks down the cost of an artificial hip replacement in the U.S. versus Belgium.  The cost in the U.S. is over $78,000, while in Belgium it is $13,660.

The main cost differences lie in variation in the surgeon's fee (about 16 times higher in the U.S.), the implant cost (more than 8 times higher in the U.S.) and the hospital room cost (about 8 times higher on a per-night basis).  These differences helped direct the reporters towards a story that unpacks the reasons for variation in impact and hospital costs, while unfortunately saying little about the differences in surgeon's fees.

Imagine what we could learn from similar analyses of the costs of higher education in this country versus in others.   Time and again I hear that costs of education students at the postsecondary level are higher here than anywhere else, and it is very hard to believe that those costs explain our high (yet declining) ranking in terms of quality.

This quote in the Times article stood out to me as precisely the sort of thing we need to explore.  When an American traveled to Belgium for a far less expensive hip replacement, he entered a hospital and was initially concerned: I was immediately scared because at first I thought, this is really old.  The chairs in the waiting rooms were metal, the walls were painted a pale green, there was no gift shop. He flashed back to his recent visit to New York Presbyterian Hospital, which has comfortable waiting rooms, an elegant lobby and newsstands -- along with much, much higher prices. But then I realized everything was new. It was just functional. There wasn't much of a nod to comfort because they were there to provide health care.

Think about the last private college or public flagship campus you visited, and then think about your local comprehensive university or community college.  They are all there, purportedly, to provide education.  Yet the former are all about "comfort"-- and their influence is leading other institutions with far fewer resources to follow that path.  The question is, at what cost?

Take a look at this recent transformation of Madison Area Technical College -- which now calls itself Madison College. What if this happened to two-year colleges across the nation, most of which rely on underpaid college instructors for the actual educating? At what cost, and at what consequence?  Of course it's always wonderful to spend your days learning new things in beautiful places, but what if it means your neighbors can't afford an education at all?

Last year
This year

Sure, buildings and amenities aren't the whole story-- we really need the Times to unpack those discrepancies in surgeon fees.  We have to get to the bottom of our American obsession with equating amenities with quality in fields and services where the amenities are immaterial to the purposes.  And then we need to engage in appropriate comparative analyses to look for better solutions to our American higher education challenges.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Student Power Converges on Madison

Starting today, the National Student Power Convergence is occupying UW-Madison.  My home department of Educational Policy Studies is a proud sponsor of this terrific event.  It is FREE, open to the public, and the place to be for the next 5 days.  UW Alum Maxwell Love, newly elected Vice-President of the United States Student Association, is a key organizer.

The agenda is entirely constructed by student organizers and aimed at sharing political and tactical analyses, and creating replicable campaigns to put student issues on the table in higher education nationwide.

Among the program highlights relevant for readers of this blog:

Friday August 2, 230-4 pm, Ingraham Hall Room 122 at UW-Madison
Student Debt: Dealing with Existing & Future Debt

Nelini Stamp as Moderator, Heather McGhee of Demos, Anne Johnson of Generation
Progress, Sami Alloy of Oregon Working Families Party, Scott Ross of One Wisconsin, and Sophia Zaman of United States Student Association

The millennial generation is the largest generation in American history, the most educated
generation in American history and the most indebted. The good news is that young
people around the country are pushing for the sweeping changes we need to tackle the
$1 trillion in student debt and make college more affordable and accessible for every student
and family. Check out this panel to hear from individuals and institutions involved in
the National Student Debt campaign.

Saturday August 3, 230-4 pm, Education L150 at UW-Madison

Jalina Wayser of United States Student Association and New Jersey United Students

Just like power, student governments can be tools for the expression and manifestation of
your values. For this training, students from New Jersey United Students will draw on their experiences
of infiltrating and redirecting student governments to serve as hubs for organizing.

Saturday August 3, 230-4 pm, Ingraham Hall Room 116 at UW-Madison

Nelini Stamp of Working Families Party, Anne Johnson of Generation Progress

Mapping out Wall Street‘s Role on Campus will be a training on how to find the
different ways in which Wall Street has taken control of public higher education.
We will map out how to find endowment funds, board of governors/regents/
trustees that have ties to Wall St, and Wall Street on campus debit cards. This
will help give students tools to analyze the current power structure on campus.

Saturday August 3, 430-6 pm, Ingraham Hall Room 113 at UW-Madison

Jacob Chaffin of Ohio University Student Union, Stephanie Rivera of Students United
for Public Education, Israel Munoz and Ross Floyd of Chicago Student to Save
Our Schools, Jaysen Brazile of Newark Students Union, Anthony Ramirez of Voces
De La Frontera

College and high school students talk about the attacks on public K-12 education, the
fight back mounted by youth, communities, and teachers, and the role of college student
solidarity in the fight for public education.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Time with Teachers-- or What I Did on my Summer Vacation

I am a tenured professor, and this is July of my first-ever sabbatical.  According to many critics of higher education, I am currently sunning my buns on the shores of Bermuda, sipping cocktails and snacking on brie while the taxpayers labor at home to pay my salary.

On the contrary. I've just returned from a three-day trip to Indianapolis, where I joined more than 85 members of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County spending their unpaid time participating in AVID Summer Institute. Furthering their effort to get more students on track to college and career, these teachers and administrators spent their days actively focused on learning new pedagogical practices and acquiring new tools to bring home and put into place by fall.

They are nothing short of remarkable.

As we traveled to and from Indianapolis on a couple of big busses, sat in school team meetings around big conference tables, shared breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and waited in line for coffee, I got to talk with more public school teachers than I've ever encountered before in my life.  I listened closely to their casual conversations, hoping to gain insight into the sources of the laziness and ineptitude I've heard so much about. I waited to hear the voices conveying the soft bigotry of low expectations of their students, especially those students of color.  I watched and waited for them to doze off, unengaged as always in their work.

Ha!  As if. Let me tell you what these folks talked about, nonstop.

  • How to help the dozens of students for whom there isn't sufficient space in their under-funded, high-demand programs
  • How to spend adequate time with the long lines of students seeking help--now--at the end of each class period, while still making it to their next class
  • How to balance the desire to get involved in new programs while also covering their existing teaching loads
  • How to talk to parents about college possibilities without making them feel like failures if they could not afford to send their kids
  • How to explain to administrators why those chose to take on the "hardest cases" even though it would be "easier" to leave them behind
  • How to cope with racism in their communities without getting angry, so that they could help their students do the same
  • How to integrate innovations like AVID into their practice as they also cope with the Common Core, how to do it efficiently, and how to help others do the same
I compared notes with these teachers and found that compared to this university professor, they work very comparable hours, receive far more professional development and critique, have much less autonomy, and get paid but a fraction of what I earn.  I'm boggled that we can sleep at night knowing that we do not invest more in ensuring they will continue to do this hard work and are rewarded for it. I'm stunned that people pay so much money to higher education professors while demanding so little in the way of training, professional development, and evaluation of pedagogical practice in return. 

My time with teachers was one of the best moments of my summer.  My time with teachers was just the beginning.  In three days they made me their pupil.  I will continue to learn. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Comments on "Racial Segregation Patterns in Selective Universities"

Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University has been publishing a steady stream of papers examining the role of race in college admissions, with a particular focus on the effects of affirmative action.  I've discussed his work on this blog before, and given the substantial attention that generated, I'm sharing thoughts on another relatively new piece.

In the new paper, Peter and his colleagues suggest that friendships among students attending selective universities are no more likely to be interracial in composition than friendships in high school.  Of persistent racial segregation, they write:

"This is particularly true for blacks where on average their share of friends who are of another race is no higher in college than in high school despite their colleges having a much smaller share of black students than their high schools. However, the extent of interracial friendships, both before and during college, vary significantly depending on academic preparedness. The percentage of black friendships that are same-race is lower for those with SAT that are relatively low given the college they attend. Ordered probit estimates of the number of friends of different races show that, within a college, increasing one's own academic preparation makes inter-racial friendships with blacks less likely while increasing friendships with whites and Asians.

The multiple waves of friendship reporting ... tell a story of substantial racial isolation among blacks that slightly increases over time. Despite only comprising eight percent of the Duke student body, Black students report on average that 68% of their friends are black during their freshman year, a number which increases to 72% in their senior year. Ordered probit results again suggest that friendships with other races are more likely to occur the more similar one's academic preparation is to those of other races.

Taken as a whole, our results suggest that similarity in academic background is an important
determinant of interracial friendship formation. That black friendships are no more diverse in college
than in high school, despite blacks being substantially less-represented in their colleges, points
to a potential cost of a ffirmative action. Namely, by introducing a mismatch between academic
backgrounds of di fferent groups, interaction between these groups is discouraged."

I have several concerns with how the authors reach their conclusions and the policy implications they draw.

1. Their assumption seems to be that where educational settings have fewer black students, those students will be more likely to have interracial friendships.  Why expect this and not the opposite?Couldn't scarcity lead to a survivalist instinct to focus on key friendships among people who might seem to come from similar places?

2. The (very modestly) increasing isolation of the black students at Duke could be due to any number of factors, including campus racial climate. In this paper there are no tests for competing explanations other than academic mismatch. And the authors make nothing of the increasing segregation of white students from black friends as well- the % of white students with black friends as freshmen falls from freshman to senior year.  Moreover, the biggest increases in isolation are among Asian students-- as freshmen, 41% of their friends are Asian, but by senior year that is up to 48%.

3. There is no evidence that the observed relationship between academic "mismatch" and friendship composition is causal. It is quite a leap to suggest that racial segregation of friendships directly results from affirmative action.  In other words, there is little overlap between the empirical tests in this paper and the policy conclusions.  The authors conclude the paper with some words that suggest they know this-- and yet they make the policy statement in their opening abstract with direct and inflammatory language, stating that affirmative action plans "drive a wedge between the academic characteristics of different racial groups" creating problems for friendships.

4. The authors do not explain what their intended alternative policy might be.  Without affirmative action there would be fewer minority students on campus at all-- given their concern with friendship integration, what would the authors suggest happen then?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Will the Campuses Crumble? A Dream of the Future involving Detroit, Mad Men, and Samuel Clemens

This post is authored by R. Thomas, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There’s a lot of talk these days about university reform, and coursing through it I see a beautiful and tragic dream of the future.  Dreams, of course, meld idiosyncratic images and mine blends Detroit, Mad Men, and the great speeches of Samuel Clemens. 

We all know the story: Boosters of online education suggest that American higher education should rely upon a small group of superstar lecturers, computer-based grading systems and thousands of adjunct graders to deliver content to the masses. To benefit from economies of scale, some say we ought to have centralized national committees that decide what gets taught and who gets to teach it. Advocates claim online education will cut costs, improve educational outcomes, and bring higher education to underserved populations.

Such efforts carry the excitement of novels for me. As in Mad Men, the details of work and visions of the future are riddled with action and curiosity.  Much of the drama, of course, comes in waiting to see what will happen. Will we break social hierarchies, educate every American, and revitalize a lagging economy?  On the job front, will employers readily hire people with online degrees?  Will we create an exceptionally creative and dynamic economy with online education or add to the legions of overeducated and underemployed young people? And what will happen to the humanities, challenged as they are to bring engaging discussion online? Will they be too expensive to deliver and thus rendered irrelevant?   Finally, how will professors respond to these online reform efforts? Some Harvardprofessors have pushed back against EdX, but will they succeed? 

Of course, as in Mad Men, many of the characters are compelling and hard to ignore. Most players pursue admirable aims, while a few see profit at every turn. Technical wizards test the boundaries of possibility on a daily basis. Finally, for intrigue, we have one prominent voice whose book describes his genius and 6’8” stature as well as his passion for greater access.  And don’t forget the eminent MOOC professorwho aped Wal-Mart management when asked to address his responsibility to the academic community. Finally, I’m sure if we looked hard enough, we'd find plenty of romance.
Woven through this drama are the fantastic lectures of Samuel Clemens. In the future, students will have nothing but the most exciting, engaging, and informative professors. We've all had amazingly inspiring teachers but also think of the dull ones: the ones that mumbled, yawned, or trailed off into empty confused space, blankly staring back at their audience of students. With MOOCs everyone will be taught by Samuel Clemens. Just as he regaled audiences around the world with stories of adventure and love, dynamic professors like Ann Swindler and Harold Scheubwill turn tedious degree requirements into something exciting, engaging, and memorable.  University education will be as entertaining as it is informative. Students will have not just a few memorable professors but rather four consistent years of intellectual challenge, adventure, and stimulation. Graduates will emerge with minds polished sharp and appetites expecting the best. Why shouldn’t universities be as good as multiple seasons of Mad Men?  Perhaps they will be…

However, the specter of Detroit and other post-industrial cities looms just out sight, haunting these dreams.  Walking around campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the place would seem to last forever. Grand and bland buildings alike bustle with life, looking impenetrable to change. Construction never stops and thousands of eager applicants are rejected each year. And yet, I imagine this same assurance was felt by workers in Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee during the 1950s and 60s. On their evenings off from Pittsburgh steel plants, my grandparents drove new cars around a dynamic city, stopping here to eat an ice cream or there to dance the jitterbug.  On weekends, they strolled down crowded Braddock Avenue for Catholic mass and later Sunday brunch. All of this is gone of course. Much of Pittsburgh, like Detroit, is a wasteland. Braddock Avenue is an icon of post-industrial America, its crumbled buildings photographed as ruin porn. My grandparents’ cathedralsnow have collapsed roofs, and the mansions of the elite lean on dilapidated foundations, smiling back with broken windows. 

Will lecture halls, our hallowed cathedrals of learning, sit dormant, fade, and eventually crumble to the ground? Of course they will.  Why should a thousand different sociology professors teach Introduction to Sociologyevery fall when the best professors from Berkeley, Princeton, Yale and UNC-Chapel Hill could take turns teaching to the entire country?

Will universities become internet-photo-curiosities, idle distractions from work-a-day routines? It’s quite possible.  As undergrads, friends and I explored abandoned amusement parks along the Jersey shore, photographing roller coasters and conjuring various ghosts creeping through fun-homes and tunnels-of-love.  You may have explored other ruins, forgotten castles or asylums perhaps.  It’s easy to imagine wealthy young people doing the same years from now, walking around abandoned campuses with overgrown grass and broken windows.  They will photograph the collapsed arches of our lecture halls and wonder what it was like to sit for an hour in those hard wooden chairs.  They’ll do their best to envision crowds of students rushing to class. 

Like any good historical drama, this dream’s actors are vividly human, their efforts creative and disturbing. Such a future is exciting and beautiful, but it is also tinged with tragedy. Poised as we are on the brink of a new future, you can almost see Samuel Clemens watching us in white with a bushy mustache, smirking, “Never let the campus get in the way of your education.”