News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 31,  Number 2   //    March/April 2023

More Students Obtaining Degrees and Certificates

The Lumina Foundation has released a report showing that the United States has made “solid progress” in postsecondary educational attainment over the last several years. Every state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, saw growth in the percentage of people who had obtained an associate degree or higher, and overall national attainment rose from 51.9 percent in 2019 to 53.7 percent in 2021.

The foundation has been tracking such data as part of its “Stronger Nation” project since 2008, when it set as a goal that 60 percent of working-age adults in the country, those ages 25 to 64, would “earn a college degree, certificate, industry-recognized certification, or other valuable credentials” by 2025. Since then, 48 states have also set attainment goals, mostly in an effort to help meet that 60 percent national target. In the recent report, the District of Columbia had the highest rate of attainment, with 72.4 percent, and Massachusetts, Utah, Colorado, and Minnesota all obtained rates of more than 60 percent. To measure state and national progress, Lumina collects data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“This news is exciting because this gain represents the largest two-year increase we have seen,” said Courtney Brown, the vice president of strategic impact and planning, and director of “Stronger Nation” at Lumina, commenting on the results. That increase has contributed to a cumulative gain of close to 16 percentage points since around the time Lumina began reporting on higher education attainment. In 2009, just 37.9 percent of adults in the nation had obtained college degrees, certificates, or industry-recognized certifications.

The report also found that a larger percentage of people from all races and ethnicities obtained college degrees (data wasn’t available for short-term credentials), especially Hispanics and Latinos, who experienced a 2.5 percent gain. Black adults followed, with an increase of almost 2 percent. Yet at the same time, the report noted, “significant disparities persist.” Although
the overall attainment rate for college degrees is 45.7 percent, the percentage of Black adults who hold college degrees is only 34.2 percent. Hispanic and Latino as well as Native Americans lag even more in their degree attainment (27.8 percent and 25.4 percent, respectively).

The Lumina report concluded: “These new data reinforce our urgent need to speed up progress especially knowing that tomorrow’s students—our future leaders—will be even more racially, socially, and generationally diverse. To meet their needs in a fast-changing labor market, educators will have to rethink, reinvent, and adapt their policies and practices.”

New Watchlist on College Value

The U.S. Department of Education has announced plans to develop an annual list of “low-value postsecondary programs”—or those “in which total costs exceed the financial benefits to students.” The department hopes to identify what exact data points and metrics would give students the best information for determining the financial consequences of choosing a particular educational program.

In a statement requesting public feedback on the idea, the department said: “Some higher education programs promote goals other than financial returns for students. However, a misalignment of prices charged to financial benefits received may cause particularly acute harm for student loan borrowers who may struggle to repay their debts after discovering too late that their postsecondary programs did not adequately prepare them for the workforce.”

The American Council on Education, higher education’s main lobbying group, is one of many organizations that have voiced concerns about the list, according to Inside Higher Ed. In a letter to the department signed by about two dozen organizations, it said it didn’t think it was possible “to establish a metric or metrics that will fully capture all of the relevant information—both qualitative and quantitative—that would theoretically be used to determine value.” Skeptics have also questioned how such a list would account for the variations across states when it comes to job opportunities and the cost of living.

There’s also the issue of how to evaluate programs that educate students for lowerpaying jobs, such as teachers and social workers that are vital to society. “The idea of quantifying a college’s benefits solely in economic terms has drawn criticism within the higher education sector,” Higher Ed Dive has reported. It also noted, however, the department is hoping to determine what data it should be collecting to gauge the nonfinancial value of programs, as well.

The concept of this type of list harkens back to the College Scorecard, an online dashboard that the Obama administration began developing about a decade ago as an effort to provide greater transparency about college and university outcomes. The current Department of Education has said it believes that publishing this proposed list of lowfinancial value institutions will also lead to more openness and accountability in ways that will benefit students and taxpayers.

But various scholars and educational organizations have expressed doubts. For instance, Dominique Baker, PhD, an associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, conducted a study in 2020 of colleges and universities ranked as having the highest tuition and average net prices. Although she acknowledged to Inside Higher Ed that policy decisions shouldn’t be based on just one research paper, she said she had found no “strong evidence that providing information alone is able to create a significant amount of change in either students’ behaviors or institutional leaders’ behaviors.”

And the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees have asked the Biden administration to reconsider publishing such a list, saying it “will stigmatize programs and leave them prone to misunderstandings by prospective students and the public.” They concluded, “It is the type of judgment that is best made by potential students, families, and their academic advisers—not the U.S. Department of Education.”

Baker concluded, “I think that it’s going to be incredibly challenging to create a sort of single measure of the financial value of an institution, particularly given the larger societal structures that we have in this country.”

Top State Priorities for Higher Education in 2023

In a recent report, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) outlined 10 priorities for colleges and universities in the coming year based on responses to a survey of its members: top administrators and their staffs at statewide higher education governing, policy, and coordinating boards. The top five issues respondents said were “important” or “very important” were:

Workforce development. Close to 95 percent of the survey participants cited this as an important or very important issue. “While advancing economic and workforce development objectives is a long-standing concern for state higher education agencies, the pandemic created disruptions and complex challenges in the labor market that could affect states for years,” the report stated. It called on public higher education to “demonstrate its value to stakeholders by meeting state workforce needs.”

K-12 teaching shortages. The report noted that “student success in higher education is built upon a foundation in K-12 education,” but that educating elementary and secondary students who are well prepared to enter college in the future is becoming especially challenging. Nationwide, 36,000 teaching positions are vacant, and 163,000 are held by underqualified teachers.

Funding for financial aid programs. More than 70 percent of those surveyed also said increased appropriations for financial aid for students was very important, even though it represents a relatively small portion of overall state support. They described providing students with adequate financial aid and “an ongoing commitment to make college more affordable” as key priorities.

Operating support for public colleges and universities. The association members polled also cited this type of state support, as it offers “a critical counterbalance to offset potential increases in tuition rates” and can have a major impact on student affordability. While it accounts for “most of the state spending on higher education, totaling $70.7 billion in fiscal year 2022,” such operating support has fallen or not kept up with inflation in many states.

Higher education’s value proposition. As “public sentiment about the value of higher education continues to drop and institutions face ongoing enrollment challenges,” the survey participants emphasized “the need to reframe the narrative.” They expressed the need to better communicate the value of colleges and universities to students, families, and state legislators.

The other issues that made it to the top ten were: college affordability, enrollment declines, public perception of higher education, addressing equity gaps, and students’ college completion. Two other issues that the report also highlighted as new and emerging were student health and safety, along with students’ basic needs like food and housing. Ultimately, according to University Business, a key takeaway from the report was that “higher education can be a key partner for states as they seek to navigate the complete multifaceted challenges of the post pandemic era and work to build a durable economic foundation for the years ahead.”

“Should Colleges Honor Disgraced Presidents?”

That’s the headline of an Inside Higher Ed article that examines whether presidents who have unceremoniously lost their positions due to campus scandals and personal misconduct should still receive tenured or emeritus status, big payouts, institutional portraits, and other perks. As Judith Wilde, PhD, a research professor at the Schar School of Public Policy and Government at George Mason University who was interviewed for the piece, said, “Presidents are often paid handsomely on the way out, even when they leave in disgrace, earning so called golden parachutes.”

The Inside Higher Ed piece cited a number of examples. For instance, one president was fired due to a harassment scandal but returned to the faculty with an annual salary of more than $350,000. Another left their university “under a cloud caused by a predatory sex abuse scandal” yet received a presidential portrait and “a litany of other perks,” including lifetime healthcare support. Another was fired for having an affair with a subordinate but earned $463,000 in paid leave and secured a $185,000-a-year faculty job.

Wilde, who has evaluated hundreds of presidential contracts and exit agreements, questioned whether institutions are getting their money’s worth, especially in cases when the ex-president’s compensation upon returning to the faculty is greater than that of other professors with similar duties. She encouraged colleges to avoid offering such tenure agreements and other perks in new presidents’ employment contracts and to instead consider them on a case-by-case basis for each departing president. “They frequently don’t teach more than one or two classes a year and some don’t teach at all, she said and asked “Is it reasonable to pay someone several hundred thousand a year just because they’re a past president?”

Barbara Gitenstein, PhD, the senior vice president for AGB Consulting and president emerita of the College of New Jersey, agreed. “It’s not unusual for a building to be named in a president’s honor, or for a portrait to be painted, or to name an asset of some type of place, or when finances are not difficult to have some kind of gala. But in my experience, none of those are going into the contract,” she told Inside Higher Ed.

“Promising honorifics in a president’s employment contract, rather than as part of an exit agreement, can be thorny and does not represent best practices,” she warned. “Such honors can be problematic to put into a contract because then the university is bound to uphold them, even for a president who may have left under difficult circumstances.”

North Dakota Considers Bill on Tenured Professors

Proposed legislation in North Dakota would allow presidents of at least two public higher education institutions, Dickinson State University and Bismark State College, to review and fire any tenured faculty member without input from others whenever they deem it “in the institution’s best interest.” Mike Lefor, the leader of the Republican majority in the state’s House of Representatives, said he introduced the bill, which the House recently passed by 66 to 27, to encourage greater accountability and efficiency. The legislation will now move on to the North Dakota State Senate.

If the bill becomes law presidents could, as part of the review, assess faculty members based on whether they “engage in measurable and effective activities to: 1) help recruit and retain students for the institution, 2) help students achieve academic success, and 3) further the best interests of the institution, including providing advice and shared governance to campus leaders, and exercising mature judgment to avoid inadvertently harming the institution, especially in avoiding the use of social media or third-party platforms to disparage campus personnel or the institution.” Faculty members would have to “teach and advise a number of students approximately equal to the average campus faculty teaching and advising load.” And presidents could also evaluate “other factors relevant to the faculty members’ employment and the interest of the institution and the institution’s students.”

The last consideration has been among the most problematic for many critics of the bill. As Michael T. Nietzel, president emeritus of Missouri State University, wrote in Forbes, “What other factors? A professor’s salary? A professor’s reputation for being a tough grader? A budget shortfall? A faculty member’s disagreement with a department chair or dean…or president?”

Opponents of the legislation have also been alarmed that the bill essentially gave faculty members no recourse in responding to a review. The original final paragraph read: “The president and any administrators delegated to assist the president shall fulfill these duties without fear of reprisal or retaliation. No complaint, lawsuit, or other allegation is allowed against a president or other administrator for actions taken pursuant to these provisions.” The modified version passed by the House, however, now says a faculty member “may appeal the review to the commissioner of the State Board of Higher Education.”

Dickinson State president Steven D. Easton, who supports the legislation and, in fact, prepared an early draft of it, defending it to Inside Higher Ed, saying “the post-tenure review that has been adopted at many institutions in the United States has generally been controlled by the faculty,” and “it has become, unfortunately, a toothless process.” He said that he “doesn’t read the bill as meaning ‘other factors’ could be used to terminate” a faculty member. He added that a good many professors are “productive” and that he believes “they have nothing to fear from this bill.

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