Earlier this month, President Obama began releasing previews of some important proposals he will be making in his State of the Union speech tonight. Included is the idea of providing the first two years of community college for free for all students in the country. While this may sound like an intriguing idea, in an op-ed on The Conversation website I explained why this isn’t the best use of federal funds.
A look inside federal higher education proposals
In the last month, the Department of Education and President Obama have released two important proposals affecting higher education. The first, released by the department last month, was for the long-awaited college ratings plan that the president had first proposed 16 months earlier. This plan would evaluate over 6,000 colleges that participate in the government’s Title IV federal student aid grant and loan programs.
President Obama’s more recent policy idea was one he offered up January 9 in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he suggested that the first two years of community college be offered for free to all students in the country. Under the president’s plan, the costs would be covered through a federal-state partnership, where the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the tuition and participating states the remaining 25 percent.
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Missing the mark on “missing the mark”
This week’s New York Times contained a piece by economics columnist Eduardo Porter titled “Why Aid for College is Missing the Mark.” In the article, Porter argues that the “Bennett Hypothesis” – the assertion first made 27 years ago by former Secretary of Education William Bennett that increasing federal subsidized loans leads to rises in tuition prices – is the primary culprit behind the well-documented increase in tuition prices across the country over the last few decades. As Porter puts it, “Nearly two decades later, it seems, he was broadly right. Indeed, [Bennett] didn’t know the half of it.” Powerful words, but the problem is that Porter is in large part wrong regarding what Secretary Bennett actually said, as well as in his interpretation of the current situation.
A 0.000007 percent chance
Student loans continue to be a popular topic in the media, with most of the stories (at least upon a quick glance) focusing on how terrible the growing volume of student loans is. A Google news search on one day for the phrase “student loan debt” turned up the following headlines among the top results:
- Student debt threatens the safety net for elderly Americans
- Student loan and mortgage loan debt: A public health crisis
- Student loan debt and the homeownership dream
- Student loan debt is weighing college graduates down
- Student debt hurts more than your wallet
A personal educational story
Last week, I published an op-ed on the Education Week website telling the story of a difficult decision our family made about my daughter’s educational future.
Two years ago, it was my older daughter who participated in this spring ritual. And in another two years, my younger daughter would be scheduled to graduate from high school. But she will not, because she has decided to drop out of high school after only two years. And my wife and I support her decision.
I encourage you to read the piece, “Why I Encouraged My Child to Drop Out of High School.”
Undermatching is overblown
The Chronicle of Higher Education website this morning had a feature article titled “The $6 Solution,” which focuses on a college access issue known as “undermatching.” Undermatching is the notion that some high-achieving students, usually those from low-income families, enroll in colleges that are less-selective in admissions and below their potential skill level. The reason undermatching matters, according to those who are researching the phenomenon, is because attending less-selective colleges generally lowers the odds that a low-income student will complete a college degree.
Even before this article in the Chronicle, undermatching had received quite a bit of publicity. A front-page article on the phenomenon in The New York Times last March was followed by a piece in the Sunday Review section of the same paper a couple of weeks later. In January, President Obama held a White House Summit on college access, where undermatching was prominently featured (the photo above is from that summit).
Student loan hysteria hits Yahoo
I’ve written in the past about the hysteria surrounding student loans, and the focus in the media about how student loans are the next “bubble.” I recently published an op-ed in the Answer Sheet blog on education of The Washington Post in which I attempted to counter some of the rhetoric with facts about student loans. The piece received a number of comments, most of them critical, so I wrote a response which I expect to be published there sometime later this week.More recently, Yahoo published a story about one family in Massachusetts who had racked up more than half a million dollars in student loan debt, most of it in Parent PLUS loans, to send the first three of their four children to private colleges. I saw the article when a friend of mine posted it on Facebook, and after reading the story I posted a comment that said, “There is so much wrong with this article, I don’t even know where to start.” He followed up, and asked if I would be willing to explain my response in more detail. I did, and that response received many comments as well. So in the interest of sharing my response more broadly, I am including an edited version of my comments here. These comments will make the most sense if you have read the Yahoo article, so I hope you’ll take the opportunity to do that.
New regulations to combat sexual assault on college campuses
The White House yesterday announced a new series of proposals to force colleges and universities to do a better job to prevent sexual assaults on campuses, and to do more to support the victims of assaults when they do occur. The proposals came from a high-level task force the president created in January (it contained three cabinet secretaries) to address an issue that has received intense scrutiny both on college campuses, as well as in the media, in the last year or so.
A key finding of the task force, as reported in The New York Times, is that, “one in five female college students has been assaulted, but that just 12 percent of such attacks are reported.” As a father with one daughter in college, and a second heading there in the future, these numbers are disturbing. It is clear that we in higher education need to heed the call for reform.
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Pornography to pay for college?
The Internet and mainstream media have been abuzz the last couple of weeks with the story of a first-year student at Duke University who is financing her education by working as an actress in pornographic movies. A Google search today for the terms “duke university porn star tuition” returned 179,000 results. The story evidently surfaced when a fellow student at Duke was watching a video and recognized the woman as someone in one of his classes.
One of the questions framed in much of the media reporting was why a woman would have to resort to being a pornographic film actress to pay for college. In other words, what does this say about the state of tuition prices and financial aid if this young woman felt this was her only option to be able to afford the $60,000 plus price at Duke? As you read more into her story, which I admittedly have done, I would caution observers against drawing too many inferences from the choices she has made.
I’ve written numerous times, both in my scholarly research as well as in this blog, about the role that financial aid plays in promoting college access, particularly for students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education (you can see a couple of blog posts here and here; you can find my scholarly publications and op-eds on my publications page). There is no question that choosing to act in pornographic films to fund one’s education is a novel choice; most college students who work to help fund their education choose more typical jobs, such as work-study jobs on campus or working at a coffee shop. While I am sure this young woman is not the first person to have chosen her selected path, she is apparently the one who has gotten the most publicity for doing so.
A massive fail on ROI calculations for community colleges
Last spring, I posted about the challenge of calculating a return on investment (ROI) for individual colleges. The problem is with obtaining accurate data on the earnings of the graduates of a given college or university. I described there the problem with a ROI website created by the firm PayScale, which relies on self-reported data from individuals. There are a number of issues with PayScale’s methodology, but the biggest is that there is just no way to know how representative the respondents to their surveys are of the totality of the graduates for any single institution. There is also no way to judge the accuracy of the data reported.
Now there is another report out that uses the PayScale data to calculate ROI measures for community colleges. Last week, a study issued jointly by theNexus Research and Policy Center and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) took on the challenge of calculating the returns to associate’s degrees not just for individuals, but also for taxpayers in the form of the government subsidy provided to community colleges. There are a number of methodological problems with this study, which examined 579 community colleges around the country, but key among them is the study’s reliance on the PayScale data as the outcome measure for the ROI calculations. AIR is also the author of the College Measures website which, as I described in last spring’s post, shares the same flaw in using the PayScale data for some of its analyses.
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