Higher Education News

U.S. stance raises doubt about eligibility for federal loan forgiveness programs

Inside HigherEd - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 07:00

Student loan borrowers who entered into lower-paying public service careers with the expectation that their debt would eventually be wiped out by the federal government shouldn't bank on assurances from government contractors that they qualify for loan forgiveness. That was how several observers read a new court filing by the U.S. Education Department in a lawsuit over the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

The American Bar Association sued the Department of Education in December, along with four lawyers who said they were led to believe until recently that they qualified for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

In a court filing this month, however, the government argues that borrowers shouldn't expect that answers from their loan servicers will reflect the department's final ruling on their eligibility for the program. That means the department is encouraging borrowers to take lower-paying public service jobs based on a promise -- of loan forgiveness -- by a contractor that the government is free not to honor, the association said.

The loan forgiveness program, which was established in 2007, promises that student loan borrowers who worked for qualifying employers in the government and nonprofit sector and made 120 payments under an income-based repayment program would have their remaining loans wiped out. The first applications for the program are set to come due later this year as congressional lawmakers are raising concerns about the program's long-term costs.

The ABA argued in its lawsuit that the department effectively changed the rules midgame with respect to the association's status as a qualifying employer. The government in its latest filing denies that argument and says a loan servicer's response to employment certification forms "does not reflect a final agency action on the borrower’s qualifications for PSLF." A department spokesman said that as the matter was in litigation, it would not be commenting.

Linda Klein, president of the American Bar Association, said the department's argument was "both illogical and untenable."

"Obviously, the Department of Education would have to have responsibility for the contractors they hire," she said. "Why would an arm of the government hire a contractor and not supervise them?"

The suit involves four plaintiffs who worked as lawyers, including one current and another former employee of the ABA. The two other plaintiffs worked for Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Klein said individuals like the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit have chosen careers and made other life decisions based on the promise of loan forgiveness. The ABA acknowledges in its original complaint that the department has never delegated final decision-making authority but said that there is no appeals process either through the servicer or the department itself. The borrowers, meanwhile, have made career plans based on the feedback from servicers, Klein said.

"They've done everything that was asked of them. Now the rug is being pulled out from under them," she said.

Student loan borrowers don't enroll in Public Service Loan Forgiveness the way they would with income-driven repayment programs. But they must keep track of their progress in meeting the program's requirements over the course of 10 years before applying to have their debt forgiven. The department created the employment certification in 2012 to help borrowers get confirmation through their servicer whether or not they were on track to qualify.

As of last August, more than 430,000 student loan borrowers had submitted at least one employer certification form required to qualify for the program. While that number doesn't indicate how many will actually qualify or how many will initially apply, it does indicate sizable interest in the program. John B. King Jr., the second Obama administration secretary of education, said at the time that the number was a sign of the department's successful outreach to borrowers about the program.

Most applicants will likely be employees of traditional 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, government agencies and programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. The ABA is a 501(c)(6) organization, a class of nonprofit that includes membership organizations like trade associations. Nonprofits with (c)(3) status are operated exclusively for charitable, religious or educational purposes and are restricted in the kinds of lobbying activities they can engage in.

Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former Obama Department of Education official, said the government made a specific arrangement for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency to act as the servicer for borrowers planning to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, because PHEAA had the appropriate expertise to answer questions about qualifying for the program.

“It defeats the purpose of the certification process to tell people that, actually, that doesn’t mean anything after all,” Shireman said. “The annual certification should have, from a borrower’s perspective, settled the question of ‘Was I working at a qualifying job?’”

Shireman said most borrowers counting on PSLF who worked for government employers or 501(c)(3) organizations likely shouldn't be concerned. But he said the certification process was designed so that students wouldn't have to wait 10 years to have some certainty over their status.

"To reinsert that question mark is not just bad for these particular individuals -- it casts a pall over the whole program," he said.

Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the uncertainty apparently created by the department's arguments was unacceptable for borrowers.

The department, McCarthy said, "hired PHEAA to do that task for them. To the borrower, it's all the same."

NASFAA warned in a letter to the department last year that the government should be doing more to make sure borrowers who planned to apply for PSLF were with the right student loan servicer and that their current and former employers meet the requirements of the program. The legal fight over the program also followed a Government Accountability Office report in November that found the department was dramatically underestimating the cost of income-driven repayment plans and found that nearly a third of loan debt expected to be repaid through those plans would be forgiven via PSLF.

Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall University education professor who studies issues involving financial aid, said denying pre-emptive qualification for borrowers under PSLF helps the department avoid creating financial liabilities from the program.

"This seems like a fiscally prudent idea for ED, given the budget pressures they will face from President Trump, although it certainly increases the amount of uncertainty that students face," he said.

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Appeals court says lesbian former adjunct can sue Ivy Tech for bias based on sexual orientation

Inside HigherEd - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 07:00

A federal appeals court ruled 8 to 3 Tuesday that a lesbian former adjunct may sue Ivy Tech Community College for discrimination based on her sexual orientation.

The ruling says that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, religion and other factors, can also be used to sue for bias on the basis of sexual orientation.

A ruling last year by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said that the former adjunct had no right to sue, even if she suffered discrimination. That ruling concerned many advocates for gay academics, as it seemed to say they had no federal recourse for discrimination. The judges themselves seemed concerned, writing in last year's ruling of "a paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act."

That ruling was based in significant part on the idea that when Congress passed Title VII, it was not thinking about discrimination based on sexual orientation. But Tuesday's ruling by the full appeals court found that a series of Supreme Court and appeals court rulings have applied Title VII in cases that go beyond basic gender discrimination. So too has the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the full appeals court noted.

Title VII has been used in cases involving perceptions of people, whom they associate with and other factors that are consistent with discrimination based on sexual orientation, the appeals court decision said.

"In the years since 1964, Title VII has been understood to cover far more than the simple decision of an employer not to hire a woman for Job A or a man for Job B," the decision says. "The Supreme Court has held that the prohibition against sex discrimination reaches sexual harassment in the workplace, including same-sex workplace harassment; it reaches discrimination based on actuarial assumptions about a person’s longevity; and it reaches discrimination based on a person’s failure to conform to a certain set of gender stereotypes. It is quite possible that these interpretations may also have surprised some who served in the 88th Congress [which enacted Title VII]. Nevertheless, experience with the law has led the Supreme Court to recognize that each of these examples is a covered form of sex discrimination."

Being a lesbian was an example of gender nonconformity that is covered by Title VII, the ruling said.

The dissent, like the earlier decisions in the case, focused on the original intent of the 88th Congress.

The lawsuit in question was brought by Kimberly Hively in 2014, after she worked as an adjunct instructor in mathematics at Ivy Tech for 14 years, during which she not only received good reviews from her supervisors but won an award from the college for outstanding teaching.

She sued after repeatedly applying for and being rejected for permanent positions at the college and being rejected for continued employment as an adjunct. In an interview last year, she said that she traced the rejections to her sexual orientation after hearing about administrators who had commented to others about her being a lesbian in a relationship with another woman.

Tuesday's ruling, like previous decisions in the case, made no determination of the merits of Hively's suit, but focused on her right to sue under Title VII.

Ivy Tech, in defending itself against the suit, challenged her right to sue under Title VII. Tuesday night the college announced that it would drop that argument but would continue to fight in court on the charges of discrimination, not Hively's right to sue.

“Ivy Tech Community College rejects discrimination of all types; sexual orientation discrimination is specifically barred by our policies,” said a statement from the college. “Ivy Tech respects and appreciates the opinions rendered by the judges of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and does not intend to seek Supreme Court review. The college denies that it discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of her sex or sexual orientation and will defend the plaintiff’s claims on the merits in the trial court.”

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New law imperils Central European University's future in Hungary

Inside HigherEd - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 07:00

The Hungarian Parliament passed a law Tuesday that Central European University says could force it to cease operations in the country. CEU officials have described the law as a targeted attack against the university, which was founded in 1991 by the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros and has American and Hungarian accreditation and dual legal identities as CEU (American) and KEE (Hungarian).

The law was first proposed last week and fast-tracked to passage despite widespread international support for CEU. The measure would, among other things, prevent KEE, the Hungarian legal entity, from offering American degree programs and would require CEU to offer programs in New York State, where it is chartered.

"This is an unprecedented attack from within the E.U. on an American institution," Leon Botstein, the chair of CEU's board and the president of New York's Bard College, said at a news conference live-streamed Tuesday. "It is not only an attack on academic freedom, but also an attack on a longstanding precedent of international cooperation on science and research."

CEU officials have pledged to contest the law and maintain the continuity of the university's academic programs no matter what happens.

"We're determined to stay in Budapest and to continue operations, but we are also determined to serve the students and faculty and staff, which is to say that whatever occurs, we are going to continue the work of the university and secure the employment and education of those students who are here now and those students who will come in the future," Botstein said.

CEU’s president and rector, Michael Ignatieff, described the legislation that was passed as “even worse than the draft that we saw last week” in that it moves up the deadline for compliance. The new law requires that a binding agreement be reached between the U.S. and Hungarian governments by Sept. 1 and by New York State and the Hungarian government by Jan. 1.

Ignatieff said the legislation "makes the absurd request, the constitutionally absurd request, that any future operation of CEU should proceed on the basis of an agreement with the federal government, the government of the United States. I don’t know why the Hungarian government seems unaware of the Constitution of the United States, but the Constitution of the United States makes it clear that only state authorities have jurisdiction in this matter. We have had an agreement with the state of New York signed by Republican Governor George Pataki in 2004, which has been the basis upon which we’ve had a very productive and law-abiding relationship ever since."

Ignatieff said the university would ask the president of Hungary, János Áder, “to exercise his constitutional responsibilities to review the legislation.”

“The basic law of Hungary provides for and guarantees the academic freedom of scientific and research establishments. Some form of words to that effect [are] in the constitution of Hungary in the basic law, and it’s on that basis, and on other bases as well, that we will be asking President Áder to exercise his constitutional responsibilities. And I hope that everybody will notice that in defending ourselves at CEU we are seeking to defend the academic freedom of all our Hungarian partner institutions,” Ignatieff said.

The university, which offers English-taught graduate degrees in the humanities, law, management, public policy and the social sciences and which counts the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford and the incoming chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, among its board members, received an outpouring of support from international academic associations, universities, departments and individual academics since a draft of the legislation was introduced last week (a list of statements in support can be found here).

Thousands of people rallied in Budapest Sunday in support of the university, and thousands reportedly protested Tuesday after the legislation was passed. The U.S. Department of State has also lent its formal support, having issued a statement last week urging the government of Hungary "to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence."

On Tuesday, after the legislation passed, the chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest, David Kostelancik, issued a statement expressing disappointment at “the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University, despite the serious concerns raised by the United States, by hundreds of local and international organizations and institutions, and by thousands of Hungarians who value academic freedom and the many important contributions by Central European University to Hungary.”

The statement from the U.S. Embassy describes CEU as "an important component of the U.S.-Hungarian relationship for 26 years" and says the United States "will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary."

The law has widely been seen as part of a wider attack on civil society organizations and liberal values under the government of Prime Minister Victor Orbán, a proponent of what he has called "illiberal democracy." Writing in The Boston Globe, the institution's former president of seven years until last summer, John Shattuck, wrote that the "short answer" for why the government is attacking the university is "politics": "Elections will be held in Hungary in 2018, and Orbán’s self-proclaimed 'illiberal democracy' needs a 'liberal' bogeyman to be this year’s political target of its authoritarian nationalism," Shattuck wrote. "CEU was founded with a generous grant from George Soros. The Hungarian government, having previously focused its political attacks and crippling regulatory restrictions on fleeing refugees, independent courts and free media, is now aiming at Soros and the civil society organizations he has supported to advance democratic open societies."

In a statement, Hungary's Ministry of Human Capacities, which is responsible for education, accused CEU of "misleading the public" about the legislation in an attempt to keep its special "privileges."

"The subject of the legislative amendment adopted by Parliament today is not against the Central European University, and the CEU will be able to continue its operations as soon as there is an international agreement between the two countries which supports this in principle," the statement said.

"The Soros university has enjoyed privileges unavailable to any other institution of higher education in Hungary. Even though its students are only required to attend a single course, the university has been able to issue them with two degrees -- Hungarian and American. This may be good business for George Soros, but in the competition between universities it represents an unfair advantage. The legislative amendment brings this discriminative business practice to an end, closes a loophole and creates a level playing field for universities," the ministry's statement continues. (In a statement submitted to Parliament, CEU said, "contrary to what has been communicated in the press," students don't automatically receive two degrees for a single program of study.)

A separate statement from the Hungarian government quoted Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog: "Not even George Soros’s organizations stand above Hungarian law."

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Report suggests student debt doesn't always stop home buyers

Inside HigherEd - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 07:00

Politicians often cite skyrocketing debt as a prime reason why students aren’t purchasing homes, but a new report suggests otherwise.

Whether students attend college at all plays a far greater role in determining the likelihood they’ll buy a home later in life, the report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicates. Home ownership rates are higher among college graduates and those who have pursued credentials beyond an associate degree, regardless of how much debt they’ve accrued.

By age 33, approximately 56 percent of the debt-free college graduates the report’s authors studied had bought a home; graduates who were still paying off loans trailed by just about three percentage points.

A far greater discrepancy exists between students who attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, and those who only earned an associate degree or didn’t enroll in a postsecondary institution.

A little more than 40 percent of students with an associate degree and no debt were home owners by 33, 10 percentage points lower than those with a bachelor’s degree or more and no debt.

Only about 27 percent of those who never attended college were home owners by that age.

“Home ownership is positively associated with educational attainment -- in terms of both degrees pursued and degrees completed,” the report’s authors wrote in a Monday blog post. “This finding underscores the critical importance of making college financially accessible.”

The authors couched the report with a note in the blog post saying that while the statistics did suggest certain trends, they don’t necessarily imply causation.

For this reason, few conclusions can be drawn from this particular report, said Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow with the Consumer Federation of America. Often college graduates with homes come from more affluent backgrounds, Chopra said. And of course students who don’t go to college are disadvantaged in many ways, including in home buying, he said.

Conversations have trended toward focusing more on college completion than student debt, Chopra said.

“But that ignores the fact that financial issues are often a major contributor for dropping out of college,” Chopra said. “So financial hardships … can be a big obstacle in getting to the finish.”

Additionally, adjusted for inflation, wages for young college graduates have been plummeting for years, he said. He pointed out another part of the report that showed that borrowers with $100,000 or more in college-related loans are defaulting more frequently. The percentage of these high-balance borrowers defaulting jumped from 6 percent in 2005-6 to 21 percent in 2010-11. Out of the 44 million borrowers in 2016, however, only 5 percent had more than $100,00 in debt.

This doesn’t bode well, and it’s crushing young graduates’ credit scores, Chopra said.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said in an interview that the loan delinquency rate for the high-balance borrowers is particularly concerning, considering the prevalence of plans that allow students to pay back loans based on their income.

“I’m just surprised by the magnitude” of the increase in delinquencies for those borrowers, he said.

The authors examined a sample of individuals born between 1980 and 1986, relying on the National Student Clearinghouse and a Federal Reserve Bank of New York database that contains longitudinal information about consumer debt and credit. They defined home ownership as having a mortgage.

A similar 2016 study by the Brookings Institution backs up the New York Fed's recent findings on home ownership.

At the time, the author of the Brookings study, Susan M. Dynarski, a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan, wrote that the Federal Reserve Bank had actually spurred fears with another blog post that promulgated the idea that during the Great Recession, home ownership rates among those with debt fell drastically, compared to those without it.

This was not an accurate depiction, Dynarski wrote. She noted that the Federal Reserve Bank failed to separate out students who never borrowed money in the first place and those who never attended college.

For that study, the bank used credit reports but did not match it with the Clearinghouse data.

“Credit reports do contain detailed information about debt, including student loans, mortgages, credit cards and car loans,” Dynarski wrote. ”But they say little about the borrower herself. In particular, they include zero information about education.”

The authors of the recent study in their Monday blog post acknowledged the bank’s past report that Dynarski referenced, writing that that research had not been able to “disentangle” how earning different degrees and the amount of the debt students incurred affected their ability to buy a home later.

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Professors at Lehigh object to a background check and fingerprinting policy

Inside HigherEd - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 07:00

As Pennsylvania State University continues to reel from the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky abuse case, other institutions are finding ways to prevent and protect themselves from scandal. But the faculty at Lehigh University says a new three-step criminal background check policy goes too far. Professors recently approved a resolution against the new policy, asking the university to halt the check process until the Board of Trustees can reconsider it.

The screening consists of state criminal and child abuse histories and a federal criminal history via fingerprints.

Lehigh has downplayed the resolution, saying that a majority of the faculty and staff already has complied with the new policy, and that all are expected to complete their checks by May. Lehigh also says it’s doing its best to honor a new state law requiring such checks for all those who work with minors.

Yet faculty opponents continue to ask why the university hasn’t taken advantage of an exemption in the law for college professors, and have expressed concerns about handing over even more personal information to their employer.

Lehigh has “overemphasized security and control at the expense of academic freedom, privacy rights and faculty input,” said Christine Cole, a professor of school psychology and a member of the standing faculty committee on financial planning and operations, which pushed the resolution.

“This is a policy beyond that required by law and beyond policies of most peer institutions in Pennsylvania,” Cole added. It’s also “unclear how the personal information that is collected will be used, and no safeguards been put in place to protect the privacy and confidentiality of this personal information.”

In 2014, post-Sandusky, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed an updated child protection law known as Act 153. Among other provisions, it requires “school employees” who have “direct contact with children” to undergo criminal background checks. Around the same time, Lehigh was drafting a new University Protection of Minors Policy to protect minors at university-sponsored activities on campus and off.

Trustees eventually passed a version of the policy requiring all current and new faculty members and staff to complete the three-level background sweep detailed in Act 153: a state criminal history check, a state child abuse background check and a federal criminal history check involving fingerprints.

Later, in response to criticism about the scope of the law and its implications for higher education, Act 153 was amended to exclude most professors: those whose direct contact with minors involves only prospective or enrolled college and university students.

Lehigh temporarily suspended background checks for current professors who didn’t work directly with minors after that change. But it continued full screens for new faculty and staff hires and, in May, the board voted to reinstate the three-check policy for all faculty and staff -- including professors previously hired.

There was a caveat, however: current employees did not need to complete the federal fingerprint check if they didn’t have “direct contact with minors,” had been a Pennsylvania resident for 10 consecutive years (or had already done the fingerprint check while working at the university), and swore in writing that they were free of convictions relevant to the child abuse law.

In announcing the changes and a May compliance deadline in October, the Office of the Provost noted that the university pays all costs of the three checks and works with a third-party agency to complete them.

In promoting their resolution to colleagues, members of the financial planning and operations committee have said that they support efforts to protect minors and generally agree on the child abuse clearance. But taken as a whole, and in light of broader political concerns about surveillance, they’ve said, the policy sends a message that security and “control” outrank academic freedom and privacy. They’ve also objected to a lack of faculty input in the process, and asserted that many peer institutions have not adopted policies beyond what is required by law. Questions remain, too, about how their personal information will be protected.

Slava Rotkin, a professor of physics and chair of the financial planning and operations committee, said the resolution asks that the board reconsider the policy so that it doesn’t go beyond what Pennsylvania law requires, and that administrators postpone checks until that happens.

Lori Friedman, university spokesperson, said it’s important to note that faculty and staff members interact with minors who are not students in ways that may not be immediately obvious, such as during research, on-campus summer programs or community service.

She noted that the new policy surrounding protection of minors also requires faculty and staff members to report suspected abuse, and to complete an online training program on working with minors.

As to professors’ concerns about privacy, Friedman said the university has made public its vendor’s privacy policy, which notes, in part, that fingerprint data are confidential under the law and are electronically transmitted only to the Federal Bureau of Investigation via a secure server.

Results of background checks will remain confidential, according to Lehigh and under the policy. Employment, discipline or termination decisions based on arrests or convictions of other criminal offenses are to be made via an individualized assessment and nondiscrimination guidelines.

Background checks have been controversial elsewhere. The University of Illinois, for example, instituted criminal background checks for new employees (and current employees transitioning to “sensitive” positions) and individualized assessments based on findings in 2015. That was after a local newspaper wrote a series of articles about James Kilgore, a former fugitive member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who’d been teaching on campus.

A fingerprinting policy at Florida Gulf Coast University also sparked debate in 2012, but proceeded over faculty objections.

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Sanders, Democratic colleagues introduce new free-college bill

Inside HigherEd - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 07:00

Seeking to offer an alternative vision to that of President Trump and congressional Republicans, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic colleagues on Monday unveiled new legislation Monday to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.

Competing free-college plans offered by Sanders and Hillary Clinton were central to the Democratic presidential primary last year. But with the new bill, as well as Medicare for All legislation, Democrats are looking to keep a focus on the difference between their priorities and those of the new president. Both proposals have no realistic chance of passing soon but could help energize the party's progressive supporters.

The legislation outlined by Sanders Monday, which Democrats are calling College for All, would make public colleges and universities tuition-free to students with family income up to $125,000; make community colleges tuition-free; cut student loan interest rates in half; and triple funding for the Federal Work-Study program.

"Our job is not just to resist all of Trump's dumb proposals," Sanders told a group of vocal supporters at the Dirksen Senate office building. "Our job is to bring forward a progressive agenda."

He was joined at the event, which often took on the feel of a political rally, by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. House sponsors of the legislation -- Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal and Minnesota Representatives Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison -- were also in attendance. California Senator Kamala Harris, whose state has become a hotbed of free-college proposals, has also said she'll support the bill. And the proposal was lauded by members of National Nurses United and the United States Student Association.

Breana Ross, president of the student association, said the cuts to college prep and student aid programs proposed in the White House budget blueprint last month would be extremely detrimental to low-income students and students of color.

"We believe that education is a right and not a commodity," she said.

The legislation represents something of a departure from the free-college proposal Sanders released during his presidential campaign. That version included free college for students regardless of family income. Clinton criticized Sanders's proposal as subsidizing the education of wealthy Americans -- including the children of Donald Trump. She also attacked the plan for relying too much on participation from states -- although her own proposal would have required significant state support. But before receiving his endorsement for president, she offered a compromise plan that moved her own free-college proposal much closer to Sanders's.

The outline of the bill announced Monday hews closely to that final Clinton plan, including the promise that colleges and universities would be tuition-free for students from households earning less than $125,000. Sanders said Monday that would account for 80 percent of U.S. families. Cutting student loan interest rates, meanwhile, has for years been a favored policy of Democrats aiming to address college affordability.

Sanders and the Democrats pitched a major reinvestment in higher education as a matter of national competitiveness.

"Our economy will not survive in the future unless we have the best-educated work force in the world," he said. "Our job, if we are smart, is to do everything possible to make it easier for people to pay for their education -- not harder."

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities said in a statement that state disinvestment in higher education has shifted costs to families and students, who must take out loans to attend even low-cost public colleges.

By calling for a federal-state matching program, Sanders's latest proposal, the statement said, is "one of the most effective mechanisms to incentivize states to partner with the federal government and to make higher education available to all students, regardless of families’ limited financial means."

But some on the left were disappointed by the proposal. The $125,000 cutoff was a compromise in 2016 and a free-college plan shouldn't be means tested, said Melissa Byrne, a free-college organizer who worked for Sanders's presidential campaign and later ran for vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

The 125k limit for free college is just a DC talker. Folks outside of DC see a line and panic they won't qualify if something changes.

— Melissa Byrne (@mcbyrne) April 4, 2017

Since Trump's surprise election victory in November, any hope for a free-college package at the federal level appeared dead. But state leaders have continued to offer their own versions of free-college plans. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced in January tuition-free higher education for families in the state earning up to $125,000. Weeks later, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, a fellow Democrat, proposed two tuition-free years at community colleges or public universities in her state. Unlike the Sanders plan, the Rhode Island proposal would give students the choice of two years of free community college or a tuition waiver for their last two years at a four-year institution.

Morley Winograd, president and chief executive officer of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, said he is always glad to see another free-college proposal introduced but said the chances of the bill passing were "slim to none." Instead, it would serve as a statement about the priorities of progressives within the Democratic caucus, he said.

"It's certainly the progressive wing of the Democratic Party -- so Bernie Sanders supporters and people from that movement -- wanting to make sure that that agenda remains alive," he said.

But while support for free college at the federal level is concentrated among progressive Democrats, Winograd said successes expanding free-college programs have often been built with bipartisan support at the state and local level.

"There are as many red states as blue states that have taken steps on free college," he said.

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President proposes consolidation at Connecticut State system

Inside HigherEd - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 07:00

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is tumbling down an enrollment and funding cliff, landing it back in line for cuts and consolidations.

The system's president, Mark E. Ojakian, laid out a pair of consolidation recommendations Monday that he will put before the state’s Board of Regents for Higher Education this week. Ojakian is recommending a systemwide consolidation of administrative and non-student-facing personnel. And he is recommending consolidating CSCU’s 12 community colleges into a single, centrally managed organization.

Taken together, the two moves are intended to save an estimated $41 million annually. Ojakian cast them as necessary for a state system that has had to freeze hiring amid budget shortfalls and that is in line to lose tens of millions of dollars in public funding in coming years because of a state budget crisis. The president also signaled further changes could be in store down the line, saying he wants to look at potential regional partnerships between the system’s four-year universities and its community colleges.

Those proposals could dredge up controversy in Connecticut, which is only a few years removed from a messy 2011 merger of four state universities, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College. After that merger -- which did not include the state’s separately governed flagship, the University of Connecticut -- CSCU burned through multiple presidents before Ojakian took over in September 2015. Ojakian, a former chief of staff for Democratic Governor Dannel P. Malloy, is credited with helping to craft the merger that created CSCU in the first place.

Millions of dollars in cost savings were touted as the state prepared to merge the universities and community colleges in 2011. The system was also supposed to bolster access, affordability and student success, Ojakian wrote Monday in an open letter announcing his consolidation proposals. But the reality of the system has not matched the goals.

“For a variety of reasons, we have not realized the power that comes with developing a system in which interrelated and interdependent entities come together around a common goal,” Ojakian wrote. “I believe the time is now to fully embrace the potential of our system.”

Living up to the cost savings and student benefits promised by a coordinated system will not be easy, according to those who know public higher education in Connecticut. Many of the same barriers exist today that dogged Connecticut’s institutions six years -- and that are creating hurdles as other states consider mergers between public institutions. Steep budget challenges, quirks of geographic placement, institutional identity and a heavily unionized work force can all make change difficult.

But, according to Ojakian, change is necessary.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Ojakian wrote. “Our system as it is will not survive.”

State appropriations to CSCU, a $1.2 billion system, have dropped by 12.4 percent since 2015, according to the system. Between the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years alone, appropriations fell by $35.7 million -- 5.9 percent.

System leaders are anticipating additional cuts. They expect at least another $35 million drop in the 2018 fiscal year, a number that could potentially balloon if the state is unable to free up money in a series of labor talks that are currently under way. Meanwhile, CSCU leaders expect an increasing structural deficit as operating costs rise faster than revenue.

Most of the system’s costs are in labor -- 80 percent. And 95 percent of its full-time employees are covered under union contracts.

Meanwhile, enrollment has been falling, dropping 11.1 percent in the last five years. Systemwide fall head count enrollment fell from 95,962 in 2011 to 85,318 in 2016. It will be difficult for leaders to change those trends, as the number of high schoolers graduating each year in Connecticut is projected to drop a whopping 26 percent between 2011-12 and 2031-32. Nearly all of the system’s students, 96 percent, pay in-state tuition.

Ojakian has already proposed raising tuition by 4 percent at the system’s universities and by 2.5 percent at its community colleges in each of the next two years. That would push university tuition and fees to $10,901 and community college tuition to $4,384 in the 2019 fiscal year. Charter Oak tuition would rise by 4 percent each year, up to $8,234 in 2019. But system leaders don’t believe they can close the expected deficit with hiring freezes or tuition increases -- at least, not without hurting students. Reductions in staff are needed, they argue.

So they drafted their two consolidation proposals. The systemwide administrative consolidation would cover back-office functions like human resources, purchasing and information technology. The goal would be to save $13 million annually after the changes are phased in over one or two years.

The community college organizational consolidation would create one institution managed centrally -- the 12 community college campuses and most or all of their satellite campuses would remain open. Savings would be targeted at $28 million after a one- or two-year phase-in period.

Neither change would cut faculty jobs or student-facing functions, according to Ojakian. Officials also considered closing community colleges, consolidating universities or regional consolidation between universities and colleges. Those moves would have led to more savings but came with drawbacks. Still, Ojakian called for looking onto regional partnerships between colleges and universities.

“As I have said repeatedly, all options have been on the table,” he wrote. “We examined the closing of community college campuses and the operational consolidation of our universities. We looked at regional consolidation of the universities and colleges and elimination of system office. Those options did not meet our guiding principles, were not feasible for long-term growth or were potentially more costly.”

Faculty members knew Ojakian would unveil a major proposal this week. But they only learned details about it Monday. They plan to meet to discuss it soon, according to Barbara Richards, chair of the system’s Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents for Higher Education and a professor of sociology at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

“There will be a lot of discussion on Thursday and Friday,” she said. “This is obviously a big thing.”

Others quickly voiced concerns, however. Roberta Willis is a Democratic former member of Connecticut’s House of Representatives. She chaired the House’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee and was an early skeptic of the 2011 merger that created CSCU.

Now, she worries about the ramifications of administrative consolidation for local campuses.

“They’re saying that this is a way to keep all 12 community colleges open,” she said. “My argument is that I feel that, well, the community colleges particularly have relationships with the community. They’re the ones that meet with business leaders. They’re the ones that meet with local school systems.”

Presidents of community colleges raise money and make the case to the state system that a new program is needed, Willis said. It’s possible no one will be left to fill that role if local presidents are eliminated.

Connecticut is far from alone in its move toward consolidation. Many other states have started looking seriously at mergers amid budget shortfalls and challenging demographic projections. Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education leaders are taking a hard look at their system’s future. Leaders in other states, such as Vermont, have followed similar courses.

Those involved in the 2011 merger knew Connecticut was facing a dwindling pool of high school graduates in coming years, said Michael Meotti, former executive vice president for the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, who is now executive director at the Washington Student Achievement Council. But at the time they were focused on consolidating a university system office and a college system office that were about 100 yards away from each other on a street in Hartford, he said.

Meotti added that the idea of future consolidations might have been a matter of general speculation in 2011. But there have been many developments since then. Namely, the state has gone through continuous budget struggles, and legislators often have to turn to higher education cuts in such situations.

“Connecticut has gone from a situation where you would have a budget crisis every five years, which was the national norm, to become like some other states, where it’s almost a constant siege of budget deficits because of challenges on the revenue side,” Meotti said.

Regents will decide Thursday whether to take the next consolidation step. If they approve the proposals, leaders want to develop a full plan to implement changes by the beginning of July.

Connecticut’s legislative leaders spoke positively about Ojakian and his plans, although they would not have to approve them. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a Republican, told The CT Mirror Ojakian “gets the big picture.” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a Democrat, said the system president has been pitching his plan in a way that was not done previously.

“I think he’s spent a lot of time talking to folks in the system -- and also listening, which is a massive departure from what has happened in the past,” Duff said, according to The CT Mirror. “I think the bright spot in his plan is he doesn’t cut faculty positions and really brings structural changes into the system.”

It’s not clear whether constituencies will resist the changes. An AFT Connecticut spokesman declined comment when contacted Monday.

But the latest developments could serve as a wake-up call, said Willis, the former state legislator who led the Connecticut House’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. She finds the idea of cuts painful, saying higher education always seems to be hit when state funding is tight.

“It’s throwing down the gauntlet,” Willis said.

Still, she said Ojakian seems to be receiving support from different constituencies like faculty members and staff.

“He does reach out,” she said. “I think they feel he has their best interest at heart. That’s an important step, that that trust building happens.”

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Colleges announce commencement speakers

Inside HigherEd - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 07:00
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HHS secretary proposes cutting reimbursements that fund university-based research

Inside HigherEd - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 07:00

When President Trump proposed a cut of nearly 20 percent in support for the National Institutes of Health, many wondered how the administration would even attempt to find such reductions. The answer emerged in the congressional testimony last week of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who argued the government could save billions without hurting research by cutting back on the overhead reimbursements to colleges and universities.

Higher education associations said cutting those reimbursements would have a very real impact on the science conducted on campuses. For some institutions, eliminating support for administrative costs could mean they would find it difficult to continue that research at all, the groups said.

The Trump administration in its so-called skinny budget last month proposed cutting the funding of the National Institutes of Health, the largest backer of university-based research, by nearly 20 percent. Even the most conservative members of the GOP caucus expressed concern after the document's release about cutting support for the agency that funds important developments in cancer and epidemiology science.

But in testimony in front of a House appropriations subcommittee last week, Price argued that the administration could make those cuts to the agency's budget without harming any research by eliminating support for administrative costs. Eighty percent of NIH's funding is directed to universities and medical centers throughout the country in the form of research grants. Price said about 30 percent of that grant funding is spent on what he called indirect expenses.

"We ought to be looking at that," he told lawmakers. "That's an amount that would cover much more than the reduction being proposed."

Price suggested there were greater efficiencies to be found at institutions involved in research that would allow the government to actually increase direct support for research.

Higher ed groups said facilities and administrative expenses involved in supporting campus-based science are very much part of the costs of doing that work and such payments have been part of the financial support of research for decades. Ending that support would mean universities would face billions in additional expenses for staffing, utilities, facilities and more.

The NIH spent about $6.4 billion on such costs last year, on top of $16.9 billion in direct support of research.

"They are intrinsically part of the costs of doing research," said Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president for Congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. "Indirect cost payments that institutions receive when they do research for the federal government do not even fully cover all the costs associated with doing research. Universities are definitely paying for some of that work already."

And Poulakidis said colleges and universities have become more and more efficient over recent decades in how they support research enterprises as they grapple with declining support at the state level. At the same time, they've seen regulations associated with research increase at the federal level.

"The costs have increased, the state support has gone down and our institutions have become much more efficient," she said. "There's not a lot of wiggle room here."

Universities individually negotiate the rates for overhead payments -- shorthand for the reimbursements from the government for administrative costs. Those rates can vary significantly from campus to campus. But Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, said there are already caps for such payments in many places. Congress in the 1990s adopted a 26 percent cap on administrative costs exclusively for universities.

That was part of the fallout from a scandal over how Stanford University used overhead payments on items like decorations for its then president's house. Since then, the awarding of funding has been cleaned up and standardized by Congress and higher ed, Smith said. But reimbursement rates often don't cover the entire amount of facilities and administrative costs.

"We often have to subsidize those costs with university money," he said.

That means universities already have plenty of incentive to be as efficient as possible, Smith said.

"These costs are real. To say they aren't is very wrongheaded and misrepresents the situation we will face at universities," he said. "Frankly, some of our universities won't be able to figure out a way to pay for those costs."

(Note: This story originally misstated the title of Jennifer Poulakidas. It has been updated.)

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Long Island University, citing need to attract students, orders faculty to trim core curriculum

Inside HigherEd - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 07:00

Even the best-laid curricula can go awry, or at least get stale. So colleges and universities review and revise their cores or general-education programs with some regularity. And that’s what professors at Long Island University's two major campuses had agreed to do in recent years.

Then things went off course with the unprecedented faculty lockout at LIU’s Brooklyn campus in September over union contract issues. Faculty-administrative relations, already tense, took a nosedive, and curricular revisions took a backseat.

Now, in another blow to faculty morale and shared governance, professors say, the university’s Board of Trustees has imposed a credit cap and timeline for the typically faculty-driven curricular review process at both the Brooklyn and C.W. Post campuses. That’s after the university allegedly unilaterally cut or suspended dozens of degrees for this coming fall. On the Brooklyn campus, for example, math, philosophy, economics, visual arts and sociology-anthropology, among other majors, have been "stayed" until further notice.

As for the core, the university says discussions are ongoing and nothing’s set in stone. But faculty leaders who’ve attended board, curricular committee and other meetings say otherwise.

“The faculty acutely recognizes that the core curriculum needs to be updated and potentially trimmed," said Rebecca States, professor of physical therapy at Brooklyn and president of its Faculty Senate, noting that her campus voted last year to revise its core. "But it’s very distressing to have a mandate put upon us saying exactly what numbers it has to be trimmed to -- and that the reasons for doing this have more to do with market competitiveness. They’re looking at peer institutions that all have the same number of credits in the core and saying, ‘Wow, we need to have smaller cores.’”

Currently, both LIU campuses have relatively large undergraduate cores. Brooklyn’s general core is at least 51 credits of a bachelor's degree, including an English seminar, six credits of foreign language and course work across the liberal arts. Post’s standard core is 39 to 45 credits in course work that develops 10 skill areas, from written communication to ethical reasoning to technological competency.

Most of LIU’s competitor institutions, meanwhile, have core curricula or general-education programs that are about 30 to 33 credits. Examples include the State University of New York campuses (30) and Hofstra University (33).

Unsurprisingly, then, perhaps, faculty members say LIU’s board recently told both campuses to revise their cores to 30 to 33 credits. Again, professors had already agreed to review their curricula. Yet those opposed to the board’s directive say that the process should be faculty driven, and that any credit cap should be based on academics -- not merely what peer institutions are doing.

Another problem is the timeline. Faculty members say they’ve been told the new core has to be in place by 2018, and even possibly by this fall at the Post campus. While 2018 is pushing it, fall 2017 is reckless, they say, as revising the core means thoughtful collaboration across disciplines and in some cases creating new courses.

“It’s impossible,” said Deborah Mutnick, a professor of English at Brooklyn who asked to join an appointed campus committee considering revisions to the core. “Not to mention the fact that classes are forming already for fall 2017. It would be incredibly chaotic.”

One professor at the Post campus who did not want to be identified by name said via email, "We have been told that if we do not produce this new, even more reduced core by fall, the [board] may do the job themselves -- i.e., produce their own cut core. ...Needless to say, we are all scrambling at this point."

There's been no formal, direct communication between the board or administration and the faculty as a whole regarding changes to the core. But some of the 2017 rumors are based on an email sent last week to liberal arts departments at the Post campus by John Lutz, chair of English and co-chair of the Outcomes Assessment Steering Committee.

“I learned that the [board] was moving up the timeline and wanted the new core in place by fall 2017,” he wrote. “I was called into another meeting [where] this was confirmed. … Although the board has no real interest in the disciplines represented, I listened to them discuss some disciplines at the board meeting in January, and I’m persuaded that if we don’t respond proactively and pragmatically, they may just decide to eliminate some of our disciplines without our input. And our core will be 30 credits.”

Lutz declined an interview request but told Inside Higher Ed via email that the timeline is still being discussed and he had nothing “definitive” to share.

“Post campus has been undergoing an effort of core revision for the past several years, and I’ve been personally leading that effort,” he added. “We’ve made significant changes to our core curriculum already and integrated best practices such as first-year seminars and learning communities. We’re hoping to continue with this process with a timeline that enables us produce something with intellectual rigor and integrity that will be beneficial to our students.”

If professors want their core revisions to be based on “intellectual rigor and integrity,” why does the board seem set on cores reflective of competitor institutions? Enrollments tell a certain story. Based on internal data obtained by Inside Higher Ed, freshman enrollments have been declining in recent years, from 886 in 2012 to 514 in 2016 at Post, and from 904 to 715 at Brooklyn over the same period. The number of incoming freshmen at Brooklyn dropped from 818 in 2015 to 715 in 2016 alone.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that sharp decline happened the same semester the Brooklyn faculty was locked out for 12 days at the start of classes. President Kimberly Cline later faced faculty votes of no confidence, and the union contract issue remains unresolved in the long term. So that the university appears to be looking to academics to fix what is almost certainly also a public relations problem is not lost on professors.

“It’s certainly ironic,” Mutnick said, attributing another chunk of the problem to rising tuition at private institutions like hers across the country. But instead of addressing the unsustainable financials of higher education, she said, LIU, at least, is seeking academic “expediency” to get students through their degrees faster.

Such arguments recall nationwide debates about the role of a college education and whether it should prepare one for a career and lifetime of learning, or for a first job -- or both. But is there also an administrative case for the kind of expediency that undercuts typical shared governance processes?

Jeffrey Kane, senior vice president for academic affairs across LIU campuses, said the university -- including the faculty -- has been working for 18 months to develop its “first ever long-term strategic plan and institutional effectiveness strategy.” A central finding was that the university needs to review and revise its core curricula, he added via email.

“At one campus, the core curriculum has not changed in nearly 20 years, with the last revision taking 13 years to design,” he said. So in order “to move the institution forward, the [board] directed the university’s academic leadership to work with faculty to put forward improved cores that would better serve students, be more in line with peer institutions and provide educational flexibility for students, while maintaining a strong liberal arts foundation.”

“In today’s rapidly evolving higher education landscape,” Kane said, “revisions like this need to be timely. … Everyone remains welcome to come to the table and engage in a transparent process designed to ensure that we have programs that are best for our students and allow them to graduate on time with a thoroughgoing education for a purposeful life.”

For some, however, the move seems like one more undercutting of the faculty role on campus. States, the Brooklyn Faculty Senate president, noted this academic year already has brought unilateral changes to academic programs. While some programs do have low enrollments or numbers of majors, States said, faculty members should be the ones to consider such questions as "What is a liberal arts college without a math major?"

Hildi Hendrickson, chair of sociology-anthropology at the Brooklyn campus, recently resigned as University Faculty Senate president over what she in her resignation letter to administrators called the "empty charade" of shared governance at LIU. As for the fate of her department's major, Hendrickson said she's been told each program will be consulted about its "particular situation," but that's it's "not clear what you need to do to have a shot at keeping your major running." It's just "the latest twist in a year full of demoralizing and infuriating events," she added.

Asked about faculty morale, States laughed, sighed and said, "For a long time, we still thought we had some authority with regard to the curriculum, but this spring has destroyed that belief. … Morale is terrible."

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Study: Library directors moving ahead with plans to rethink libraries

Inside HigherEd - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 07:00

Library directors are growing increasingly confident about the directions in which they are moving their organizations, a new study found, but the rest of the campus may not have gotten the memo.

The Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2016, released this morning, builds on findings from the 2013 edition. It shows many library directors are becoming comfortable with the idea that the library may no longer be the starting point for research, and that they are forging ahead with plans to further boost libraries’ ability to support students and faculty members with their teaching, learning and research.

Those plans are facing some resistance. Many faculty members value that the library acquires and stores the books and journals they need for their scholarship and want them to keep doing so while also expanding their services. Compared to the last survey, conducted in 2013, fewer library directors now say they agree with their direct supervisor about the direction in which to take the library. And insufficient funding continues to place constraints on library directors’ ability to make change.

Yet “the redirection of the academic library continues,” writes Roger C. Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s library and scholarly communication program. “Academic libraries are in transition away from serving principally as collection builders and content providers, where size is a metric of success. Many leaders see a future where they will be valued for the contributions they make in support of instruction and learning, and in the case of research universities, in support of research, including their distinctive collections.”

The survey, which is based on responses from 722 library deans and directors at nonprofit four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., provides an overview of the academic library landscape at a time when many libraries are renovating, reorganizing and, broadly speaking, rethinking their priorities.

The findings show that work is being led by many library directors who are relatively new on the job. More than half of the respondents (55.2 percent) said they have held the position of dean or director for less than five years. About one-quarter (26 percent) said they have more than 11 years of experience.

That doesn’t mean the reorganization projects are being led exclusively by newcomers to the academic library, however. Some of it reflects the general trend of more frequent job-hopping seen in today’s employment market.

Arizona State University is one example. The university recently got the green light to proceed with a plan to renovate of its main library on campus and hire about 25 new staffers. The project is expected to cost more than $100 million. ASU in 2014 hired James J. O’Donnell, a former Georgetown University provost, to lead the library through the process.

In an interview last month, O’Donnell said the scope of ASU’s plans was one of his main reasons for taking the job.

“The situation in the library and the institution here was one where they didn’t need a custodian,” O’Donnell, who served on Ithaka’s advisory board for this survey, said. He said ASU was looking for “significant change and significant progress,” and not for “someone to come in and not mess up.”

Library directors at large research universities such as ASU are focusing intently on improving services that support teaching, learning and research, which is reflected in their constraints and hiring plans.

Compared to those at baccalaureate and master’s institutions, library directors at doctoral institutions were more likely to name a lack of employee skills in key areas as one of their primary constraints. And looking ahead to the next five years, those library directors said they expect to hire new staffers who will focus on a range of specialized topics, among them data analytics, digital humanities and preservation (click the thumbnails to see full-size images).

“What you can see there are the absolutely dramatic differences that are being imagined at doctoral universities versus smaller, teaching-oriented institutions,” Schonfeld said in an interview. “Doctoral directors are especially confident about where they’re going, and they need people to help them get there.”

Library directors at large research universities are slightly less constrained by their budgets than those at smaller institutions, but they also face a little more resistance from their own staff members, the survey results show.

“It’s a bigger ship to turn, there’s a clear sense of the new roles that are emerging and there’s more organization distance from the director to the front line,” Schonfeld said. “All three of those things are co-occurring in the doctoral institutions.”

Disagreement on Student Skills

Library directors continue to say that supporting student success is their No. 1 priority. They do so in a number of ways: providing reference instruction, supporting online instruction and simply being a physical space on campus where students can collaborate and study.

Compared to faculty members, however, library directors have a vastly different view of the impact of those efforts.

More than 80 percent of the library directors surveyed said they “contribute significantly” to student learning by helping them discover scholarly sources and develop their research skills. Faculty members are evenly divided on the question, according to the faculty survey Ithaka published last year.

Faculty members are also concerned about their students’ ability to find and evaluate scholarly information -- slightly more than half of the 9,203 faculty members surveyed rated students’ skills as “poor.” About one-third of library directors said the same.

The library directors’ responses are perhaps particularly interesting, Schonfeld said, as the survey was fielded last fall during the height of an election season in which “fake news” featured prominently.

“It has me wondering if they’re … thinking about the same sets of issues,” Schonfeld said. “What is it that seems to cause faculty responses to be more critical of students that library director responses?”

At the same time, the distance between library directors and their immediate supervisors is growing. The share of library directors who said they share the same vision for the library with their supervisor is down about 10 percentage points from the 2013 survey (though a majority are still in agreement), and fewer library directors now say they are considered a member of their institution's senior academic leadership.

“You get the sense that, as a group, they’re pursuing these new directions,” Schonfeld said, “and yet you have these indications that suggest … they haven’t fully realized the fruits of their investments.”

“They’re laboring to make a transition and offer new services and generate new sources of value.”

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Sacred Heart University reaches management agreement with St. Vincent's College

Inside HigherEd - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 07:00

A pair of Roman Catholic institutions continued a national trend toward private college consolidations Friday, with a large university in Connecticut striking a deal that will likely have it acquiring a nearby nursing college next year.

Sacred Heart University, an 8,500-student university with its main campus in Fairfield, Conn., is entering a management agreement with St. Vincent’s College. St. Vincent’s, which mostly awards two-year degrees in nursing, is a much smaller college located about three miles away at St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

The deal is structured as a management agreement that will at first have St. Vincent’s paying Sacred Heart for assistance in areas like staffing, admissions, financial aid, student affairs and information technology. The two institutions will also work to gain accreditor and state approval for an acquisition that would make St. Vincent’s a part of Sacred Heart. If approved, that acquisition would likely take place in about a year.

Leaders at the two institutions say the agreement gives students access to clinical opportunities, makes transfers easier and takes financial pressures off St. Vincent’s. Students at Sacred Heart University, which already has colleges of nursing and health professions among its five divisions, will have more access to inpatient clinical sites, they said. St. Vincent’s students, meanwhile, will have routes to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Sacred Heart.

There are no plans to move programs out of St. Vincent’s Medical Center, said Michael Gargano, president of St. Vincent’s College, which is a subsidiary of the 473-bed hospital. It is primarily located in the hospital and medical center complex, although it also has a location about a block away that houses a radiology program.

The new management agreement will give St. Vincent’s College access to scale it needs to provide services students and faculty members need, Gargano said.

“I think, quite honestly, what you’re seeing is something that is probably going to transpire throughout higher education in the coming years,” Gargano said. “A lot of times with these small, niche institutions, they just don’t have the financial wherewithal to support all aspects of the operation.”

St. Vincent’s enrolls a large number of low-income students. Almost 30 percent of its students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, which indicates they come from families with low incomes.

Most students attend part time, and many transfer in from a community college, Gargano said. Another large portion of the college’s student body is returning to college to start a second career.

St. Vincent’s operates on a much smaller scale than Sacred Heart. St. Vincent’s has spent about $10 million annually in recent years, according to tax documents filed with the federal government. It has 22 full-time faculty members and another 30 or 40 adjuncts, Gargano said. Sacred Heart, on the other hand, spends well over $200 million annually while employing 840 full-time and 665 part-time faculty members and staff. Sacred Heart’s College of Nursing has 828 undergraduates between its campus and online programs -- more than St. Vincent’s entire enrollment. Sacred Heart also has 793 graduate students in its College of Nursing.

St. Vincent’s currently has associate degree programs in nursing, radiography and general studies. It also offers online bachelor’s degree completion programs in nursing, radiological sciences and health-care administration, along with certificate programs in health-care fields. Sacred Heart University has more than 70 programs on its main campus.

The deal between the institutions comes shortly after speculation over whether St. Vincent’s Medical Center was up for sale or merger. The hospital, founded in 1903, is a part of Ascension Health, a large national Catholic health system. Officials confirmed to the Connecticut Post at the end of February that options for the hospital were under consideration. But then at the beginning of March, they said no deal was pending.

It also comes as many private colleges and universities around the country are exploring mergers. Trevecca Nazarene University, in Nashville, Tenn., and Eastern Nazarene University, outside Boston, are weighing a merger under an agreement reached in March. Barry University and St. Thomas University, two Roman Catholic institutions in the Miami area, are looking into a strategic alliance.

The situation is no different in Connecticut, said Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges.

“Smaller private institutions are highly tuition dependent,” she said. “It’s expensive to run a college.”

Other private institutions in Connecticut are considering changes as well. For instance, the University of St. Joseph, which has traditionally limited its undergraduate offerings to women, said in November it would study whether it should admit men.

In Connecticut, private colleges and universities have an added pressure that comes from a drop in state-based aid offerings. A need-based program that was recently renamed -- from the Governor’s Scholarship Program to the Roberta B. Willis Scholarship program -- has been cut significantly, Widness said.

“That’s another issue we have in Connecticut,” she said.

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Milwaukee passes ordinance aimed at blocking low-quality for-profit colleges

Inside HigherEd - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 07:00

As the Trump administration tries to roll back education regulations, one city is attempting to stay a move ahead by fortifying its own protections for some college students.

The Milwaukee Common Council unanimously passed legislation last week to prohibit financial assistance to for-profit institutions unless they meet federal financial aid regulations. The legislation, which updates a previous rule, means the city won’t provide monetary aid to for-profits or to related development projects if the involved colleges fail to meet federal financial aid regulations that were in force on Jan. 1, 2017, before Trump's inauguration.

“Considering the leadership change at the federal level and who is now over the Education Department and her relationship with private for-profit colleges, it was thought that the federal guidelines could change, and our ordinance was predicated on what the federal guidelines were at that time,” said Alderwoman Milele Coggs, who sponsored the legislation. “So if those guidelines change, it doesn’t affect the standard we set as a city for education.”

Coggs said Milwaukee has a right to be concerned about the types of education institutions that want to do business there. The original ordinance was put into effect following the 2009 arrival of Everest College, which received development money from the city.

“We had major reservations about them coming in here, and we put them through the paces and [made them] jump through a series of hoops to demonstrate they could be successful in serving students,” said David Dies, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board, the state’s for-profit oversight agency.

Coggs said she and other residents in the city also had reservations about Everest. But the institution eventually opened its doors with the help of $11 million in bonds from the city’s redevelopment authority, she said.

It wasn’t too long after Everest opened that the EAB noticed problems.

“They only operated here about 18 months, and early on we started sensing issues based on a handful of complaints,” Dies said, adding that students were completing Everest programs but failing to get jobs or externships.

Michael Rosen, an economics professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, also fought against Everest opening in the city and saw the effects of its programming, and of other for-profits like ITT and Sanford Brown, on students.

"The students that go there are predominantly female and predominantly minorities who have very little family background with higher ed," said Rosen, president of a local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a faculty union. "They feel they have to do something to get a better income, a better job and be a good example to their children, and these schools sell them their dream, but they don't deliver. So students end up with credits that don't transfer, degrees that do not lead to employment, deeper debt and more impoverished than when they went there."

After a series of negotiations, Everest and its parent company at the time -- Corinthian Colleges -- closed the campus and ultimately reached a settlement with the agency to forgive students’ debts, Dies said. Corinthian officials apologized and admitted making mistakes in the city.

The Everest situation in Milwaukee happened before Corinthian collapsed in 2015. But Milwaukee saw other local for-profit campuses shut down as well, when federal regulations led to the closure of all ITT Technical Institutes.

The EAB served as a line of defense for Everest students. But the agency is facing a second existential threat in two years.

The state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, has once again called for the elimination of the EAB and wants to transfer its functions to the state’s safety and professional services department, which also oversees state licensure issues.

There may be some administrative advantage to consolidating the agencies, but the board could lose the background knowledge and educational perspective used to provide oversight of the institutions, Dies said, adding that some of EAB functions may have to compete with others the safety department provides.

As for the Milwaukee ordinance, Dies said it’s a “local control issue” and that there’s no guarantee it would stop a low-quality for-profit institution from operating in the city.

“What they’re trying to do is simply preserve the broadest provisions upon which they can tie the conditions of providing this money,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s going to necessarily do anything to prevent or mitigate an ITT or Everest closing.”

While other for-profit institutions operate in Milwaukee, Coggs said, most didn’t get the sort of financial assistance from the city that would trigger the ordinance. But that could change.

“Milwaukee is going through a redevelopment boom right now,” she said. “Particularly in our downtown area, billions have been spent over several years, so I could see the potential for one of these schools to want to get into a new development or a building being redeveloped.”

Coggs said the ordinance would cover the development of multiuse buildings as well, and not just those that would house the institution alone.

“When we are aware of institutions that have a bad track record … we’re not assisting them with any tax dollars,” Coggs said. “They must at least meet some basic criteria and educational standards.”

And with a governor, education secretary, president and Republican-led U.S. Congress that likely will be supportive of for-profit institutions, Rosen said it's reasonable to expect that the Obama administration's regulations will be dismantled.

"What we did in Milwaukee is a model for local communities to establish standards in their communities that protect students as consumers of higher education," he said. "I would hope other city council people, mayors and county board members would look at that and try to come up with innovative ways of protecting the public from being preyed on by these schools."

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