Thursday, June 30, 2011

Shining (a little) Light on Net Price

I must admit, I got a little excited when I (virtually) opened the Chronicle this morning and saw that the Department of Education had published its own personal scarlet letter list of the colleges and universities charging the highest net price. Finally, the government did what government can do best-- draw our attention to important national trends that make our local (personal) problems into national (public) ones.

I was also psyched about the list because it's another step tovards helping change the deeply entrenched public perception that the sticker price listed by colleges is the actual price people pay. It's not-- since almost everyone get some kind of discount-- but that fact is so little known that some of us are pretty convinced that sticker shock exerts effects on the decisions made by families with little information.

But as I read about this list, I deflated. First of all, it's clearly obtuse. It's got 54 lists made up of 6 variables and 9 sectors. 54 lists. Come on...most of this country still thinks USA Today is a good, thorough read. And the thing is, some of the smarter government guys know it's too much-- but hey, Congress said so, so here we are (look at the quote by professor and NCES chief honcho Jack Buckley, who is far too polite when he says "this definition of net price is far from perfect." If only I were so diplomatic...).

There we are--getting it done, but not getting it done right.

Moreover, in talking about the power of the list, some officials clearly want to take this too far, suggesting the list tells us something about institutional "performance." Um, no-- not at all. Net price tells us nothing about the impact the institution has on students--only about the price it charges.

All that to say-- this is a decent step in the right direction but we can and must do more. This is prime time for higher education, we've got a growing cadre of smart folks paying attention to the national problems of affordability and degree completion and we need to develop metrics that deliver the kind of information parents and students can use (sorry, I refuse to call people "consumers") in a manner in which those who need it most can find it accessible. How about tweeting the highlights of the list for starters? Arne? David? Jack? You up for it?

Postscript: More coverage of this story, including a quote from me, here on Marketplace on NPR.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fit to Lead

UW-Madison has a new interim chancellor and it's a person of great integrity, intellect, and experience. David Ward has led Madison before, and is exactly the right kind of person to lead us through the current high waters.

My opinion of David is based on many things, including:

-- His decision to found the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education with gifts he received when completing his term as chancellor. This was an effort to let more flowers bloom in higher education research and policy, and it led to the creation of several faculty lines including one I occupy.

-- His leadership on the Board of the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars, the state's largest private need-based financial aid program. Again, in full disclosure, it's the program I have spent the last three years studying. I've watched David interact on this board, asking tough questions of us researchers, and offer sage advice. He's fully capable of making thoughtful decisions informed by rigorous evidence.

-- His prior term as Chancellor of UW-Madison, during which time he showed great respect for shared governance and solid choices in selecting staff.

-- His work as president of the American Council on Education.

This, ladies and gents, is the power of a System. President Kevin Reilly has installed just the kind of leader we need at this moment, someone who has not been embroiled in rancorous campus politics, and can come and steer us onto calmer seas.

Trust me, given their druthers, it's not whom "Bascom" would've appointed.

Rock on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wake Up and Smell Scott Walker's Plans for UW-Madison

Biddy Martin is moving on to Amherst. Sadly, UW Madison is stuck with the Martin/Walker, Walker/Martin plan for public authority-- and Scott Walker still seems hell-bent on pushing for it.

Make no mistake about it, this fight ain't over. Rest up this summer, and while you're recuperating, please do some reading on what Walker and his ALEC cronies think is "best" for public higher education. That is, privatize the heck out of it.

That's the plan folks, mark my words. If you thought this was Biddy's bright idea, think again. In her effort to save us from financial disaster, she walked us right into the lion's den. That's the "hand we were dealt" of course, a "reality" handknit for us by the corporate elites determined to ensure that big business rules, no matter what the cost to the working people of Wisconsin.

Get ready. We have work to do. RECALL WALKER. Save Wisconsin public higher education.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Making Our Investments Count

In a few weeks my research team will release findings from our ongoing study of need-based financial aid, as we host a conference on Affordability and Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education. Preparing for this event has given me the chance to think more about the things colleges and universities might do to maximize the substantial investments federal and state governments--and taxpayers--make in college students.

In particular, I propose that institutions begin to leverage their existing resources-- namely, their faculty-- to support the neediest students, those who enter with a low probability of success. While some might argue those students simply shouldn't be admitted, I take a different stance: given the labor market returns to college degrees and the widespread ambitions for college, it's incumbent upon higher education institutions to get "student-ready" -- rather than simply demanding that students get "college-ready."

I hope to begin writing about this concept of "student-ready" colleges from time to time over the coming months, but let's start with two ideas for how it could work.

(1) The Chronicle of Higher Education today highlights a program that assigned retired faculty to mentor first-generation students. Love this-- it's a win-win for all involved. Students without college-educated parents gain the benefits of having a college-educated "grandparent" of sorts who has not only attended but succeeded in college and worked at one!

(2) Here's an idea of my own. Policymakers should experiment with a new program to provide colleges and universities with incentives to place Pell Grant recipients in contact with faculty. Student-faculty interactions have been shown to enhance retention rates, and they are less common among low-income, first-generation students. A work-study type program could be a starting approach, but typical work-study jobs are located in cafeterias and libraries where students cannot form new connections with their educators. This approach should enhance the effectiveness of financial aid by supplementing it with increased faculty interaction. The federal government could begin with a trial effort using funds from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. The effort should be rigorously evaluated and used to inform future revisions of financial aid programs.

For sure, many faculty are overworked as it is. These kinds of things won't work everywhere and under all conditions. But let's say we tried them at four-year universities first. I'm willing to bet that even with uneven quality of mentoring, the effects on some students would be large enough as to raise persistence rates. The mentors will also benefit, and perhaps become advocates for these students and the programs that serve them. Student contact reminds us why we got into this biz in the first place, energizes us, and grounds us. We should be urged and rewarded for focusing that contact where it's most needed.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm...

Twitter is such an amazing resource. For those following Chancellor Biddy Martin's departure from the University, I thought you might enjoy some of these recent tweets about her statements at Amherst today.

Marx: "Welcome to Amherst, @Biddy_Martin." Another standing ovation.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Martin: "I just feel the urge to get here and find out who all of you are."less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Martin: "I think people exaggerate the difference between private and public institutions, and even small and large institutions."less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Martin: "I need first to learn from the faculty ... staff ... students" about college's challenges and aspirations.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Martin: "Every part of the community is critical to the success of the community."less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Martin: "Things can always be made better, no matter how great they are. ... But we'll want to do that together."less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Martin: "You can count on me always to want to discuss things."less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Turn, Turn, Turn

I've been asked by some readers for my thoughts on the resignation of Chancellor Biddy Martin, and her pending move to Amherst College.

My general sense is this: Martin's making the move that is right for her. There is a place and time for everything, and she must've had a sense that her time here might not last much longer when she entered the search at Amherst last fall. She had more knowledge of the full dynamics at play in these Wisconsin debates than anyone, since she was allowed into more conversations with more players. She was looking ahead.

The job at Amherst is an enviable one. The past-president, Tony Marx, is one of the most thoughtful leaders of higher education in the nation. His efforts at value-driven decision-making have challenged traditions--traditions that favor institutional interests over student and state interests. I am especially impressed by his efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity by not only offering enormous amounts of financial aid but also practicing class-based affirmative action. Many institutions do only the former but not the latter since it's the latter that makes the distribution of aid much more expensive. He used the advantages that come with being at an elite private institution to challenge the privileges the elites try to keep for themselves. Those are big shoes to fill.

Looking to the future I fervently hope that the search for a new UW-Madison chancellor will identify someone who thinks about both the institutional and student interests (and by students I mean all potential students not only those currently or previously enrolled) as well as the state's interests, and how those often conflict. I hope we will be led by someone who understands and is fully committed to the unique values, qualities, and challenges facing public higher education-- and who embraces its difficulties as opportunities, rather than resenting them. Public institutions should be recognized for the uncommon goods that they are, rather than treated like a dying breed that cannot be saved.

On Wisconsin!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Guest Blog: The Trouble with Transfer Articulation Policies

Today's blog is authored by Josipa Roksa, assistant professor at the University of Virginia

Once again, transfer articulation policies are in the news, being touted as a viable solution to the problem of low transfer rates between 2-year and 4-year colleges.

Articulation policies sound like a good idea, but there are a few pieces of empirical evidence that should give us pause. Consider the following questions:

(1) Do states with articulation policies (and particularly those with more comprehensive articulation policies) have higher transfer rates?

According to at least three recent studies, the answer is no.

For example, see:
Gregory M. Anderson, Jeffrey C. Sun, and Mariana Alfonso Anderson, “Effectiveness of Statewide Articulation Agreements on the Probability of Transfer: A Preliminary Policy Analysis” The Review of Higher Education, 29 no 3 (2006).

Betheny Gross and Dan Goldhaber, “Community College Transfer and Articulation Policies: Looking Beneath the Surface.” Working paper # 2009_1R. University of Washington Bothell: Center on Reinventing Public Education (April 2009)

Josipa Roksa, “Building Bridges for Student Success: Are Higher Education Articulation Policies Effective?,” Teachers College Record 111 (2009).

(2) Do states with articulation policies have higher bachelor’s degree completion rates, shorter time-to-degree, and/or less “wasted” credits among their transfer students?

The answer, again, is no.

Josipa Roksa, and Bruce Keith,“Credits, Time, and Attainment: Articulation Policies and Success after Transfer,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 30 (2008).

(3) How many credits do four-year entrants earn on their path toward a bachelor’s degree?

Community college transfers are not the only ones earning 140 credits. A recent report noted that students who transferred from community colleges to the California State University (CSU) system graduated with an average of 141 credits. And how many credits did students who began in the CSU system graduate with? 142!! The situation is only slightly better in Florida: Associate of Arts (AA) transfers completed 137 credits before graduation while native four-year students averaged approximately 133 credits. Similar patterns are observed in national data: students starting in four-year institutions (and even those who attend only one four-year institution) earn more (and often many more) than 120 credits.

In conclusion: yes, low transfer rates are a problem, but there is no empirical evidence to suggest that articulation policies are the solution. This does not mean that we should not work on streamlining credit accumulation, or that the transfer process should not be more transparent and consistent. But it does mean that relying on articulation policies to increase bachelor’s degree attainment or improve efficiency in higher education is more hopeful than realistic.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Faculty Productivity

Richard Vedder isn't an easy guy to get along with, but he's good at one thing: pushing the agenda, sometimes in students' best interests.

I totally disagree with the guy when it comes to financial aid-- there's no way it's making students lazy on average, or causing them to party. On the other hand, he asks some good questions about our college-for-all movement that offers no alternatives for students who don't want to go to college right away, and he also raises good questions about institutional resistance to change.

In his latest piece, he takes on faculty. Boo-hiss, I know... The guy has the nerve to suggest that on average we don't teach enough. His analysis comes from Texas A&M (so popular these days, eh?) and finds a “sharp disparity in the teaching loads for individual faculty members” at UT. Strikingly, they find that the top 20 percent of “faculty with respect to teaching loads teaches 57% of all student credit hours” while the bottom 20 percent teach “only 2% of all student credit hours.”

His point, while overly aggressive (heck, I know something about that), is mainly that we established a way of putting students and teachers together a long, long time ago-- and since then colleges and universities have tried to save money on that approach by shifting to a part-time contingent workforce (reducing average teaching load), allowing more and more professors to buy out of teaching with grant money, and keeping class sizes about the same even while enrollments expanded dramatically and technology made other solutions possible.

When Richard says it, people freak out. A rebuttal from a Texas A&M political science professor tries to bat down the accusations. But he seems to miss the point of Vedder's approach, which is to say that every decision about staffing matters-- so we should lump together faculty in different categories given that theoretically the distributions could be changed. Case in point: "First, much of the skew in teaching duties observed by the CCAP report authors is simply a function of the fact that UT employs a large number of part-time faculty." Well, yes, but that's part of the point-- and a big problem. Universities do that NOT to serve students better but to save money on benefits. PT faculty are perfectly good at teaching but are overworked and underpaid so don't have time for out-of-classroom interaction. His second point, that there's a potential consequence for education quality is right, in theory, yet he cites not a single study showing that large class sizes are associated with diminish instructional quality in higher education. And that's because he can't-- such studies don't exist. Doug Harris and I covered this at length in our La Follette working paper released last year. I do agree that there should be adjustments by field, but this needs to be carefully done because decisions about offering fields with lower enrollments are also strategic decisions and institutions have to be accountable for them. I'm not saying don't offer them, but you can probably only do it if you high-demand fields are very productive. Finally, I see nothing about the use of our resistance to technology, especially blended learning, about faculty in the professor's rebuttal. Technology breaks the iron triangle between access, quality, and costs -- it makes it more possible to offer a high-quality lower cost accessible education. I'm on-board with that and it may be one thing that sets me apart from most other professors.

All that said, Vedder's analysis is far from perfect. It doesn't introduce the issue of impacts on students in any rigorous way. It doesn't take on strongly enough the political and economic reasons why part-time labor is being exploited across higher education. It doesn't question a business-style approach to measuring higher education "outputs." And it doesn't take seriously the need for faculty to LEAD this discussion so that reforms stand a chance of really being implemented.

I've long wondered why I teach today in approximately the same way my colleagues did a half-century ago. Why stand in front of classrooms of 30-50 undergraduates several times a week, rather than meeting with 300 of them twice a month and the rest of the time online? Some will inevitably say that will produce lower-quality instruction but they have nothing to point to-- studies of blended learning are strongly suggestive of positive impacts. Forget online-only, I'm not talking about online only and neither are most proponents of bringing technological advances into university teaching.

And let's get real: right now there are hundreds of professors who have to cancel classes in order to attend conferences, meetings, and such. They resent the requirement to be in-person all the time to teach, when nothing else in their lives requires that anymore. Some of them never reschedule, others hold makeup classes, and some use Skype to teach. The latter is a very low-tech approach and it's used because we're not given other options. What if we were? What if faculty could teach more students, more flexibly, and even with better pedagogy (for example by getting more regular feedback on student performance, rapidly, to use in our teaching) -- and this, together, helped preserve public investment in higher education because it demonstrated productivity gains? Why not?

I suspect part of the reason "why not" is because when you hear "online" you think "for-profit" or "business." When you hear "big classes" you think "community college." When you hear "improved pedagogy" you think "someone's going to tell me how to teach?" And when you hear "productivity" you think "neoliberalism, market-driven education." I know, I sometimes do too.

This is a problem-- professors are thoughtful, careful people and it's essential we not have knee-jerk reactions to ideas that aren't yet being shoved down our throats in propaganda-spun-out policy proposals. This is one we can help shape and get in front of, and make it our own. Or, we can wait until the Republicans bring it to us, and tell us what to do.

PS. One more thing. Richard's claims that faculty can do more because he's done more--juggling research and teaching--that's just plain silly. There's been a major change in the faculty workforce--it's feminized. Something I know for sure-- Richard never juggled teaching, research, breastfeeding, and taking care of small kids. We can and should do more, but there's no reason to base the model on Richard Vedder's style.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Community Colleges and Press

To the editor of Education Week:

In the June 9 article by Caralee Adams titled "Popularity Offers Challenges for Community Colleges." I am quoted in a manner that implies significant disrespect for the work of community colleges. While Ms. Adams used my words verbatim, they were taken out of context and this --unintentionally--altered their meaning.

I shared in the effort to craft and pass the American Graduation Initiative intended to support the efforts of community colleges to serve students from all walks of life. When the AGI failed to become law, it meant that community colleges had been drawn into the public eye but not given the financial resources they needed to improve their outcomes. Their current outcomes became highly visible, and left some with the false impression they were attributable to a lack of will on the part of the colleges, rather than a lack of resources.

I explained this to Caralee, and in particular I said the colleges had both the "will and commitment" to succeed. I also noted that I felt partially responsible for not delivering more support to them. Those pieces were paraphrased due to space constraints, but they were essential.

My long track record of analyzing and explaining the challenges facing community colleges stands on its own. They have motivation--what they need now is money and technical assistance. I fully support efforts to deliver on the promise of the AGI.

Sara Goldrick-Rab

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Biddy Martin's Next Bold Vision

Chancellor Biddy Martin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison enjoys making bold moves. Here are some thoughts on what those next moves could be.

Since his election, Scott Walker has successfully divided the constituencies supporting public education across Wisconsin. Advocates for poor children who see charter schools as the best option are attacking public school teachers who struggle to feed their families while being painted as living lifestyles of the welfare "queens." Proponents of publicly-supported research universities are attempting to preserve the rights of UW-Madison by denigrating the work of other UW institutions. By distracting supporters of public higher education with a divisive "public authority" model for UW-Madison, Walker convinced most administrators, faculty, staff, and students at that school to fight against their brethren, rather than against his $250 million cut.

Regardless of her intentions, Chancellor Martin participated in Walker's charade. Great ugliness has resulted, and I think she's well-aware of that. For example, last week, even as the media declared the death of public authority, the Badger Advocates issued a press release that castigated UW System President Kevin Reilly and humiliated everyone not at UW-Madison. While the Badger Advocates consistently claim to represent the Chancellor--above and beyond the institution-- even she couldn't take it anymore, attempting to distance herself from their work.

That was a good start. Much more is needed. The past several months have illuminated some extremely elitist, ugly attitudes among Madison's employees, students, and alumni. To be clear, I am not attacking students here-- indeed, I feel we are collectively responsible for their actions. I am extremely concerned, however, by Martin's expressions of uniform support for alumni involvement in Madison when alumni express opinions like this one, written by Frank Rojas (UW, '74) in the comments of a national higher education online newspaper:

"Madison gets more outside research funding in one day than than Oshkosh gets in a year. It raises more donations in a day than Oshkosh does in a year. Madison would be happy to see the other schools grow and improve as it would take away some of the heat it now gets over admissions/rejections of instate kids. But to date none has shown much ability or vision in that area. There is no College of New Jersey or William and Mary equivalent in Wisconsin. Madison endorses similar freedoms from state regs for the other campuses. But it does not want to be held back by the limits of the lowest common denominator thinking either."

Frank has written to me and about me since this debate began, accusing me of "hateful" behavior towards UW-Madison. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have worked tirelessly to preserve the best of UW-Madison -- its unselfish leadership and opportunities it provides all of Wisconsin. I have worked to defend UW-Madison from global forces that aim to corrupt it-- a market-driven vision that is antithetical to its populist roots, a neoliberal approach that prioritizes pragmatism over values, a narrow definition of excellence that excludes others' accomplishments. I honor UW-Madison, the institution. That is why I fight efforts to distance it from the rest of UW System -- a move that would transform it from something unique and wonderful, to something common and truly mediocre.

Biddy's bold step should be to ensure that all of UW-Madison understands her lesson learned from the past six months: divided we fall. She should work to instill a sense of collective efficacy, and teach her employees and staff to empathize with the struggles facing all of Wisconsin. She should endeavor to educate UW alumni about the institution's values, lest they be away far too long and simply forget.

I know Biddy can do this. I recently watched a wonderful video of her during days at Cornell, where she spoke of rejecting the corrupting influence of college rankings that create a "winner-take-all" society, and focused on "questions of value" for the future of higher education. She talked of the "threats to meritocracy" that stem from "public resistance to paying the taxes it would require to keep pace with the costs of higher education and research." That is the Biddy Martin we needed to fight Scott Walker's cuts.

That Biddy Martin also talked about something crucial when she said, "I think that there is a kind of lack of attention to interiority generally, by which I mean the relationship we have to ourselves, and I believe that education is letting us all down when it comes to that. I am not talking about interiority in the form of naval-gazing or individualism in the sense of some sort of asocial obsession, but I am talking about the value of awareness and individuality, the development of individuality and the development of the ability to integrate, what we take in and what we establish as our own. I think we owe it to our students to model those things. They require engaging with the world and with other people, but they also require that each of us engage with the person that we are in the process of becoming, and that we give our students the tools to engage with themselves as the people that they are becoming to. It is a combination then of wired connectivity and super-fast pace on the one hand, which our students require of us and we require of ourselves, but also the ability to take space and time in the midst of the gold rush for contemplation and reflection."

The Biddy Martin of that video is capable of repairing the immense damage inflicted by the push for public authority. She is capable of standing up to alumni who wish to promote a UW-Madison that views the UW-Oshkoshes of the world as part of the "lowest common denominator." She is capable of reaching the hearts and minds of students who mistakenly believe they are at UW-Madison because they deserve it more than other people in the state.

That's the Biddy Martin I look forward to meeting this fall.