Defining and Disclosing Financial Health

George Cornelius blogged this morning over at Finding My College about the desirability and need for private colleges to disclose their financial health.

No matter how you look at it, we, the U.S. taxpayers, pay dearly to support our higher ed system. Yet, when it comes to the so-called private institutions (the quasi-public colleges), there isn’t much shared with us or with prospective students about the spending and financial health (or lack thereof) of the institutions.

While I can quibble with the notion of quasi-public, it is a familiar argument. Bob Morse at US News & World Report tried making a similar argument years ago that private institutions should be subject to FOIA based on the large amounts of public money they receive. However, the money technically goes to the students, though it does seem to be a bit of a shell game. The money (student financial aid) can only be used at a qualifying provider and that provider makes the determination of eligibility and award. And controls disbursement.

The U.S. Department of Education, and any state that subsidizes quasi-public colleges, should compel the recipients of this largess to disclose conspicuously on their websites their financial statements for the past five years as well as data and information about student learning and outcomes. In other words, prospective students and their families should be given information with which to distinguish the performing institutions from the underperforming ones, and the ones with a future from the ones that are likely to find themselves in the junkyard of failed institutions before the current restructuring of higher ed has run its course.

The Department, and Congress, already require oodles of disclosures. The conspicuousness of these disclosures tends to leave much to be desired. This is also true for their usability. However, when I read George’s post this morning I was intrigued by the thought of what this might look like. In Virginia, when it comes to student-oriented data, the public and nonprofit institutions have no place to hide at the undergraduate level. We publish an awful lot of data, very detailed, with student outcomes out to 10 years. However, it does not touch the student learning issue, nor the financial stability issue.

I’ve mentioned before that there are two criteria that put a private institution on my at-risk list. A retention rate for the first to second year of less than 60% and fewer than 1500 students at an undergraduate-only, or 2000 at a predominantly undergraduate institution. A significant endowment can compensate these risks, but most institutions with these issues  have little to no endowment.

What can’t compensate is an inability to pay bills if the big checks are late. Such as those from the federal government. This is what happened to Virginia Intermont, despite the president personally loaning nearly a half-million dollars to the college. We could require some kind of disclosure as to the percentage of an institution’s total revenues represented by state and federal sources, including student financial aid.This is similar in nature to the 90/10 rule the Department has established for the for-profit institutions.

Even with five years of such numbers, that is only a minimal warning. It seems to me that a “cash-on-hand” warning trend added to this might be appropriate. Every 90 days the institution reports on its website how many days it can operate with current expenditure commitments and cash available. While this may not be directly meaningful to most families and students, it would certainly tell agencies and accreditors something important about the viability and sustainability of an institution.

I would also add a measure explains how much of tuition revenue is used to fund institutional aid, and on average, what students who have to borrow to pay for their attendance and do not receive gift aid, contribute in debt towards gift aid for other students.


This excellent article from Forbes describes many of the associated problems.

If the whole idea of jacking up a price and then selectively discounting seems a bit nefarious, Crockett takes issue: “Students on campuses pay all kinds of different price points, just like people sleeping in a hotel or flying on airplanes pay all kinds of different prices.”

Does that make it right? Or ethical for a nonprofit?

Given the distorted model in place, perhaps this kind of distorted solution has merit. So long as obtaining student loans is easy and universities continue to chase rankings by leveraging aid and beefing up campus amenities, published prices will continue to rise along with tuition discounts. Thousands of schools will continue to struggle, and enrollment consultants like Noel-Levitz will be more than happy to lend a helping hand.

Yep. So perhaps the president’s proposed rating system (#PIRS) should focus only financial stability.

By the way, speaking of #PIRS, since no one else has picked up on this, Valerie Strauss published this tidbit on her blog entry regarding 50 Virginia presidents signing on to a letter opposing PIRS:

Education Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt issued this comment about the letter:

I noticed you wrote about the letter from the Virginia college presidents. Here is a statement from me (Dorie Nolt, no Turner necessary) on it:

“We have received the letter and look forward to responding. As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and assure that students graduate with an education of real value, which is the goal of the College Rating System. In an effort to build this system thoughtfully and wisely, we are listening actively to recommendations and concerns, which includes national listening tour of 80-plus meetings with 4,000 participants. We hear over and over — from students and families, college presidents and high school counselors, low-income students, business people and researchers – that, done right, a ratings system will push innovations and systems changes that will benefit students and we look forward to delivering a proposal that will help more Americans attain a college education.”

She also said there was more information about the development of the rating system on the Education Department website here.

“College Rating System” as opposed to “Postsecondary Institution Ratings System” – this seems like two changes to me: one rating system and only colleges and universities – not the thousands of other postsecondary institutions.


Net Price isn’t always

If one is going to write about how net price for college enrollment, it might be useful to really understand how it works. And to understand the College Board is less interested in reality and fact, than supporting its business models.

Taking into account financial aid — some of which comes from the colleges themselves, some of which comes from the government — the average tuition and fees were $12,460 at private colleges last year and $3,120 for in-state students at public four-year colleges, according to the College Board. At those prices, college is an investment with an excellent return for the vast majority of students who graduate.  from How the Government Exaggerates the Cost of College

Putting aside that these figures include tax benefits that don’t show up until the college year is almost done, there are two very practical problems with how they are presented here.

1) The author leaves out the $9500 in room and board, and thus the net price at a four-year public for most students is $12,620. Like it or not, this is a real cost for all students, whether on-campus or not.

2) More importantly, all of the grant aid the student receives (some of which comes from other students, including those have to borrow their full cost of attendance), is based on the total cost of attendance – which includes room and board. Without this consideration, their grants would be far less.

From the College Board report:

The calculations of average net price for full-time undergraduates in Figures 10 and 11, as well as the calculations in online Tables 7 and 8, are a best approximation and are based on the aggregate amounts of each type of aid reported in Trends in Student Aid 2013 and on the allocation of each type of aid across institution types and between part-time and full-time students reported in 1993, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) data. 

There is no way to use these data to allocate aid intended for tuition and mandatory fees v. non-mandatory fees and other expenses. I’m not sure what value the College Board report has, other than to make people feel good about a myth. I find it terribly misleading, much like their test scores.

The basic issue is this. Living, eating, and having a safe place to sleep are part of the costs of attending college. There is no real net price that excludes those costs, save for students that are fortunate to be able to attend a local college and live with their parents rent-free. To ignore these costs as part of net price is to ignore the realities of most students – especially those attending institutions, public and private, requiring students to live on campus at least the first year. And those students that don’t live near a four-year institution.




There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch – TANSTAAFL

When I talk about TANSTAAFL, I am generally referring to the reality of costs, not the social construct the Heinlein described in many of his stories. Society has simply gotten too complex, with far too many structural inequalities not to have a safety net. Instead, I use a TANSTAAFL as a reminder that everything has a price, everything has to be paid for, that you simply can’t get something for nothing. This is even natural law, described by the laws of thermodynamics.

I read something like this excellent blog post  and I am reminded again of TANSTAAFL and the potential costs of Big Data and analytics. When faced with large numbers of people to sort and choose, it makes sense to use screening tools to reduce costs. It’s that you simply can’t get something for nothing. There are trade-offs, some of which are not apparent, some of which have societal impacts. One of these is reliance on math scores for rankings and admission decisions.

I like math and use it heavily most every day. But that is me. Not everyone uses more than arithmetic. This includes a lot of college graduates….and non-graduates that are forced into a college algebra track as preparation for calculus. Non-graduates who are non-graduates in part because of that match track. There is a growing body of support for the idea that students not going into STEM fields need college algebra, let alone calculus, and thus statistics or business math is a better option. Given the continued use and misuse of statistics in the media (and as poor justification for such blog posts as Peter Greene takes on), statistics seems a much better choice.

I am confused though, probably because I don’t have enough data to know whether or not our college graduates score better in math than other countries. On the other hand, I feel pretty confident that our graduation rates would improve if we re-thought our approach to college math. This is a core strategy of the Complete College America Kool-Aid. Thinking back to my time as a math tutor for non-traditional students, I can’t help but think this to be something to consider.

Of course, such a change might have other consequences. We could lose students to that pathway that we really want or need to be exposed to more advanced math. There are other potential costs, I am sure, including the cost of designing the curricula. There (simply) ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

I could go on, but it is time for the best news show ever – Last Week Tonight.


Free parking in the Jungle

Uh-huh, 85 comments about parking; 57 comments about a “more nuanced Bill Gates” and 26 comments on a suggested reading list for Mr. Gates.

Parking still wins 85-83.

For those that may question my suggestion in the last post of “The Once and Future King” as appropriate reading material for Bill Gates, I offer the following:

1) If one can’t defend the liberal arts (and sciences) with liberal arts reading, we should probably give up trying.

2) I’m afraid that Gates, and most others, would overlook the simple and practical lessons about education and life in “The Jungle Books” by Rudyard Kipling.

3) The same folks are likely to miss the point of suggesting Richard Adams’ “Shardik.”

So, while you are perhaps dismayed by my cavalier attitude and dismissal of your ability to comprehend my thinking, I offer this: the current approaches intended to disrupt and improve education are the equivalent of a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan. By the way, I was called out by my teachers, many, many times for disrupting the education process, and not once did anyone seem to imply that it was a good thing. Just as it takes more than a copy of Easy Rider to be a rebel, it takes more than well-intentioned, well-designed technology to replace, let alone improve upon, high-touch teaching and learning.

Although, I am not a teacher/professor/instructor, so I should probably stay out of the debate about what is good teaching and the appropriate role of technology. I should stick to counting things and analyzing the process and outcomes.

I note tonight that 50 of Virginia’s college and university presidents, public and private, have signed a letter of concern to Secretary Duncan and Virginia’s congressional delegation. I welcome them to the party. I haven’t seen the letter, but this quoted in the article:

“In our judgment, it would be a serious error for students to receive a message that their success in life is evaluated solely, or even primarily, by their earnings, and especially so in the period shortly after earning their degrees.”

Well, not even I think that aspect is about evaluating student success in life, as far as PIRS is concerned. How about ability to repay their loans? Have a family? It is hard to live and enjoy the life of the mind if you spend so much time working to just get by that you never have time to think.

Fortunately, we in Virginia are not limited to short-term wage outcomes. We are about to publicly release data out to  19 years (and shortly after that, 20 years since we just got the data for 2013). I presented the preliminary report to Council on Monday.

Free Parking and the Once and Future King

Sometimes, the higher education community amazes me. In a good way.

But not today.

This morning, as I occasionally do, only today was much later than usual, I sent out a list of articles for colleagues to at least be aware of. This snippet was part of that:

And…it is 10:35 am EDT and this article has received 36 comments already:

To this point, yesterday’s article on a more nuanced Bill Gates has received only 47 comments….. I am not sure I need say anything more about the values of the readers of InsideHigherEd

There was also a blog post from John Warner about a recommended reading list for Mr. Gates to become better informed about higher education.

It is now 9:48 pm and Warner’s post has received 18 comments, primarily reading suggestions. The parking article is now up to 73. This tells me that if Gates wants higher education to support the Common Core, all he has to do is buy parking spaces for every faculty, staff, and administrator. However, if  indeed the average cost of a parking space is $18,000, that is roughly $72B to cover four million college and university employees. I’m sure he could get a deal to buy existing spaces for a small fraction though.

I’m sure few people think that Gates care what us higher ed folk think about him and what he knows. I suspect though, that if enough people make a point of commenting on a regular basis, word will get to him.

So, I have a reading suggestion. I made it to Warner, but I don’t think he took me seriously. Few enough people do so. My suggestion is T.H. White’s, The Once and Future King.  It was my first reaction to Warner’s tweet for suggestions and 30 hours later I stand by it. To me the story has always been primarily the education of boy and king. Education is about observation, experience, gaining knowledge, and translating those things into understanding and the ability to improve one’s condition. With Merlin’s guidance, Arthur learns that Might does not make Right and that even as king, and to the end of life, Arthur was still learning.

“He would go to war, if King Uther declared one. Do you know that Homo sapiens is almost
the only animal which wages war?”

“Ants do.”

“Don’t say ‘Ants do’ in that sweeping way, dear boy. There are more than four thousand
different sorts of them, and from all those kinds I can only think of five which are belligerent.
There are the five ants, one termite that I know of, and Man.”

“But the packs of wolves from the Forest Sauvage attack our flocks of sheep every winter.”

“Wolves and sheep belong to different species, my friend. True warfare is what happens
between bands of the same species. Out of the hundreds of thousands of species, I can only
think of seven which are belligerent. Even Man has a few varieties like the Esquimaux and
the Gypsies and the Lapps and certain Nomads in Arabia, who do not do it, because they do
not claim boundaries. True warfare is rarer in Nature than cannibalism. Don’t you think that is
a little unfortunate?”

“Personally,” said the Wart, “I should have liked to go to war, if I could have been made a
knight. I should have liked the banners and the trumpets, the flashing armour and the glorious
charges. And oh, I should have liked to do great deeds, and be brave, and conquer my own
fears. Don’t you have courage in warfare, Badger, and endurance, and comrades whom you

The learned animal thought for a long time, gazing into the fire.

In the end, he seemed to change the subject.

“Which did you like best,” he asked, “the ants or the wild geese?”


Sisters, mothers, grandmothers: everything was rooted in the past! Actions of any sort in one
generation might have incalculable consequences in another, so that merely to sneeze was a
pebble thrown into a pond, whose circles might lap the furthest shores. It seemed as if the
only hope was not to act at all, to draw no swords for anything, to hold oneself still, like a
pebble not thrown. But that would be hateful.

What was Right, what was Wrong? What distinguished Doing from Not Doing? If I were to
have my time again, the old King thought, I would bury myself in a monastery, for fear of a
Doing which might lead to woe.


“Listen, then. Sit for a minute and I will tell you a story. I am a very old man, Tom, and you
are young. When you are old, you will be able to tell what I have told tonight, and I want you
to do that. Do you understand this want?”

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

“Put it like this. There was a king once, called King Arthur. That is me. When he came to the
throne of England, he found that all the kings and barons were fighting against each other like
madmen, and, as they could afford to fight in expensive suits of armour, there was practically
nothing which could stop them from doing what they pleased. They did a lot of bad things,
because they lived by force. Now this king had an idea, and the idea was that force ought to
be used, if it were used at all, on behalf of justice, not on its own account. Follow this, young
boy. He thought that if he could get his barons fighting for truth, and to help weak people,
and to redress wrongs, then their fighting might not be such a bad thing as once it used to be.
So he gathered together all the true and kindly people that he knew, and he dressed them in
armour, and he made them knights, and taught them his idea, and set them down, at a Round
Table. There were a hundred and fifty of them in the happy days, and King Arthur loved his
Table with all his heart. He was prouder of it than he was of his own dear wife, and for many
years his new knights went about killing ogres, and rescuing damsels and saving poor
prisoners, and trying to set the world to rights. That was the King’s idea.”

“I think it was a good idea, my lord.”

“It was, and it was not. God knows.”

“What happened to the King in the end?” asked the child, when the story seemed to have
dried up.

“For some reason, things went wrong. The Table split into factions, a bitter war began, and
all were killed.”

The boy interrupted confidently. “No,” he said, “not all. The King won. We shall win.”

Arthur smiled vaguely and shook bis head. He would have nothing but the truth.


Arthur learned too late the folly of easy answers. Chivalry, a common core of standards for behavior, was not enough, was never going to be enough. If White had written this today, perhaps the quest for the Grail would have been a quest for better standards. As for Arthur, if he had perhaps loved his people more than he loved his idea, things would have turned out okay in the end.

For me, I suspect I will never forget the badger’s question and the answer will always be “the wild geese.”



A conversation started this morning with John Warner (@biblioracle) about remediation, learning, standards, and writing.

I keep thinking about this exchange, in part because my morning involved a heart-to-heart discussion with the oldest (12) grandelf about the necessity of learning to accept feedback and criticism as part of learning. And that this never really stops, or at least it shouldn’t.

I struggle with what I sometimes consider a lack of feedback (certain amount of insecurity revealed in that statement, I know). I don’t have a lot of people tell me “you really should do/say it this way” or “this should change” etc. I do get the occasional “you do good work” or referred to as the “data guru,” which are very much appreciated but don’t tell me much. I also don’t get much feedback on this or the other blog, but I get enough to keep on keeping on.

So, the feedback I rely on, work-wise, falls into four categories:

  1. My employment agreement gets renewed each year. I’m on an annual agreement and they don’t have to keep me around if I get too obnoxious, troublesome, or produce poor work. (This is really important to me – I like working.)
  2. People keep asking me to do stuff. There are some that are getting a bit carried away with this, but if they value my work enough to ask me to do it, that is valuable feedback.
  3. Institutional leaders use my work to support their arguments even when my work is not strictly flattering of their institution. (I am always watching for any citation of SCHEV Research data.)
  4. Legislators push bills that either require me(us) to do something, or that others use my(our) work.

Of course, I am looking what I have just written and thinking, “Didn’t this really start as a conversation about feedback in writing, you know, communication?”

Uhh, yes. But that is what I do. It just happens to be predominantly numerically-based. I’ve always thought of what I do as essentially an art form because of the Web. Until now, I don’t think I have really thought of it as primarily communication. (Sorry, Dad!) Many times over the last 23 years I have described institutional research as a process of teaching people to count to one. That is the foundational practice, but it certainly doesn’t end there because we have to communicate not only the meaning of one, but all the stories and meanings of the stories of every sum and difference of one. (If you have never seen it, The Story of 1 is a nice little documentary.)

So I am wondering how we teach young people what feedback is, how to recognize it, and how to respond to it. Probably need to teach the difference between good and bad feedback. We need to also model this behavior, because I don’t think everyone is.

About this whole “paying for college” thing

I keep trying to figure out this whole idea behind paying for college. I seem to be missing something.

Most everyone agrees that higher education is a private good. Most people, although not always the same people, agree that higher education is private good.

The first question is how much of either?

But does level matter? Yep, fewer states directly subsidize graduate and professional programs. Less financial aid is available to those students than a decade ago.

Despite the fact community colleges serve a greater number of students who are less than fully prepared for college, they typically receive a fraction of the support of four-year colleges. Fortunately, there are fewer frills (like full-time faculty) at community colleges, and despite lass financial support, they cost much less to the student. (Yes, the state spends less, but since the colleges are supported to a level that matches the needs of their students, attrition is high and completion is something other than timely, and so I would argue the cost is higher. Too many opportunity costs from subsidizing students with little hope of completing given the circumstances.)

So, if we just look at a traditional four-year student at a public institution, we see something like this:

One year of residential college: $24,000 (after a $7,000 subsidy from the state).

Four years, after increases, call it $100,000 for an on-time completion.

If the student came from a relatively poor family, the federal government might have kicked in as much as $21,000 and change. The state may have added $16-20,000, with another $12,000 from institutional aid (which if it does not come from a large endowment, it probably comes from tuition dollars of other students.) So, let’s call it a four-year net price of $50,000, roughly $12,500/year.)

That is $50,000 for the student and their family to cover. Since we assumed earlier the student got a full Pell grant, we probably should assume her family was unable to contribute anything and that the entire $50,000 is in loans.

So, the student borrows $50,000 for a solid degree in English with a 3.4% interest rate overall (which is probably lower than reality). But, she gets a job right after graduation at the median wage for English majors, about $32,000.

So, let’s make a whole host of assumptions.

She enrolls under Pay As You Earn (PAYE) right away.

PAYE remains unchanged structurally and legally for the next 25 years.

The poverty level for an individual grows about 2% annually over time. (Discretionary income under PAYE is household income – 150% of the poverty level for the household based on size.)

She stays single with no dependents.

She gets a good job at the median wage (in Virginia) for BA English majors at $32,000/year.

She stays at the medium wage which increases at 4% per year  (it was 6% for the median wage of English grads of 1992-93. I can tell you more about that next week.) but I don’t see that growth continuing, but it may.

She makes no payments the first year because her income the year she was in school was less than $20,000. Her payments the first year after are about $98. At the median wage for a in BA English in a single household, she just barely exceeds the first discretionary income cap to require payments.

If all goes well in that she has an unblemished employment history and no health problems, and makes only the minimum required payments, then it looks like she will have made just about $60,000 in total payments over 25 years. The remaining value of the loan will be about $34,000 and will be forgiven.

(This is far too much like General Physics 101 – assume five billiard balls on a frictionless surface with the cue ball traveling ……)

In any event, this looks like a relatively good deal for the student. She gets what is really a very low-cost loan with an effective interest rate for 25 years of three-quarters of a percent, I think.

In the end, the federal government writes off $34k in debt that was spent. (Doesn’t this become a back-end tax on everyone? That money is no longer available for other purposes.)

Meanwhile, we have built and maintained an entire servicing industry to manage this process…or expanded the IRS to handle it as some new legislative proposals suggest. I guess this is job creation and is thus a “good thing,” but I prefer more useful jobs.

Of course, if she had gone into engineering, enrolling in PAYE probably would have been unnecessary, and even if she had, unless she expanded her household significantly right away, she would likely have paid off all her debt well before the end of 25 years.

But I am using the non-gendered median wages. Oops. Women made less in both areas, and the annual growth rates for women were a bit less. But that’s based on graduates of 20 years ago, all that pay inequity stuff is resolved now, right?

Another oops…speaking of 20, PAYE actually has forgiveness after 20 years, not 25. IBR has forgiveness of the unpaid balance after 25 years.  So, really, she gets an even better by deal paying only $39,000 with forgiveness of $46,000.

I guess this why the GAO is planning a study on all this. It seems a pretty crazy way to run a railroad. It just seems to me it would be more cost-effective and less confusing to pay for everything upfront. In the end, there There Just Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch – we are going to pay the cost one way or another.

Students and families can only be expected to pay so much, no matter how of a private benefit higher education is. Other than the fact that 18-24 year-olds have no money, I don’t understand why families are expected to pay the college expenses of adult children. We don’t require that anywhere else. Unfortunately, we have always done it that way and we have created a marketplace where the targeted consumer is uniquely unable to afford the marketed service.

It also seems to me that this is a system designed to hide the true cost of higher education. Except that is cobbled together more than designed.

The example I used, approximates maybe 8% of borrowers in Virginia in terms of a debt being around $50k without getting into the extremes. It also represents the lower-income category net price of one of our small public colleges. However, as I have written before, if current trends continue, the class of students entering now may well have an average debt of $42-47K for those borrowers that graduate. That makes this discussion more applicable.

What am I missing? What have I got wrong? It looks to me like the states are ducking their responsibilities and spreading the cost around through federal tax base….which means we all pay in the end, what we would have paid in the first place, and probably quite a bit more. I think a more rational approach is probably in our best interests.

But that requires rationality, difficult conversations, making commitments, and living to those commitments.








What I said to the GAO

Should the Federal Government Rate Colleges (and Universities)?

President Obama, Secretary Duncan, Deputy Under-Secretary Studley, and others, have called “foul” on those of us opposing the proposed ratings system since it does not exist. Their position is that our response should be constructive and supportive until there is something to criticize.

They don’t understand why many of us, the data experts, are opposed.

It’s not that a ratings system can’t be developed. It can. At issue is the quality and appropriateness of the available data. The existing data are simply inadequate for the proposed task. IPEDS was not designed for this and organizations like US News & World Report have taken IPEDS as far as it can go and added additional data for their rankings. Also at issue is the appropriateness of the federal government providing an overall rating for an institution over aspects for which it has no authority.

I think it is fully a right course of action for the Department and Administration to rate colleges as to their performance with Title IV financial aid funding and required reporting. Ratings based on graduation rates, net price, and student outcomes of students with Title IV aid would be very useful and appropriate. Placing additional value factors in ratings relevant to compliance and accuracy of required reporting under Title IV would add meaning to a system designed to determine continued eligibility for Title IV programs.

After all, if continued eligibility and amount of available aid under Title IV are the ultimate goals, aren’t these the things to measure?

This is decidedly less politically exciting than saying Institution A has a higher overall rating than Institution B, but it makes a clear relationship between what is being measured and what matters. It also has the advantage of being able to use existing student-level data on Title IV recipients in the same manner as is being done for Gainful Employment. From where I sit, PIRS is simply Gainful Employment at an institution-level as opposed to program-level.

And that is appropriate.

Using ratings to develop performance expectations to participate in the federal largesse that is Title IV would be a good thing. Regional accreditation and state approval to operate is clearly no longer adequate for gate-keeping, if, indeed, it ever was.

The difficulty is determining what those expectations should be. It is quite reasonable to subdivide institutional sectors in some manner, calculate a graduation rate quartiles or quintiles for each group of students in Title IV programs and require institutions in the bottom to submit a five-year improvement plan with annual benchmarks. Any institution failing to meet annual benchmarks two years running could then be eliminated from Title IV. Using multiple measures of success, including wage outcomes from records matched to IRS or SSA, we can reduce any tendency towards lowering standards to survive.

In an ideal world, with quote complete end quote data, a ratings system would be focused on intra-institutional improvement. In fact, this is the language that Secretary Duncan is beginning to use, as he did in a recent interview:

“Are you increasing your six-year graduation rate, or are you not?” he said. “Are you taking more Pell Grant recipients [than you used to] or are you not?” Both of those metrics, if they were to end up as part of the rating system, would hold institutions responsible for improving their performance, not for meeting some minimum standard that would require the government to compare institutions that admit very different types of students.

The problem is that simple year-to-year improvement measures tend to not be very simple to implement. We have substantial experience with this in Virginia, especially this week, as we work through institutional review of performance measures in preparation for next week’s meeting of the State Council. On any measure, annual variance should be expected. This is especially true for measures that have multiple year horizons for evaluation. It is even truer when institutions are taking action to improve performance as sometimes such actions fail.

A better approach is focus on student sub-groups within an institution. For example, is there any reason to accept that Pell-eligible students should have a lower graduation rate than students from families with incomes greater than $150,000? We generally understand why that is currently the case, but there is no reason to accept that it must be so. I would argue, vociferously, that if the Department’s goal is to improve to access and success, that this is where the focus belongs. Rate colleges on their efforts and success at ensuring all students admitted to the same institution have the same, or very similar, opportunity for success. Provide additional levers to increase the access of certain students groups to college. To do this would require IPEDS Unit Record – a national student record system – perhaps as envisioned in the Wyden-Rubio bill, The Student Right-to-Know Before You Go Act.

This means over-turning the current ban on a student record system. It also means taking a step that brings USED into a place where most of the states are. From my perspective, it is hard to accept an overall rating system of my colleges from the federal government when I have far, far more data about those colleges and choose to not to rate them. Instead we focus on improvement through transparency and goal attainment.

I think few reasonable people will disagree with the idea of rating institutions on performance within the goals and participation agreement of Title IV. It is when the federal government chooses winners and losers beyond Title IV that disagreement settles in.

We will face disagreement over what standards to put in place, if we go down this path. That is part of the rough and tumble of policy, politics, and negotiated rulemaking. You know – the fun stuff.

Let’s take a quick look at four very different institutions. These images come from our publicly available institution profiles at


Germanna Community College does not have high graduation rates (note these are not IPEDS GRS rates as they include students starting in the spring as well as part-time students). All of these are toward the lower end of the range of Virginia public two-year colleges.  There are a range of differences among the subcohorts, particularly between students from the poorest and the wealthiest families.


Even at the highest performing institution on graduation rates, one of the highest in the nation, there is still a range of difference. A full 10 percentage point difference between the poorest and wealthiest students.


In the last two decades, CNU has more than doubled its graduation rates through transforming the institution and its admission plans. The differences between subcohorts are much smaller, but this has come at a price of denying access to students that sought an open-enrollment institution.


Ferrum College has relatively low graduation rates and high cohort default rates. Using federal data, it does not look to be an effective institution. However, I will point out that it has the highest success rate with students requiring developmental coursework in the first two years. It apparently can serve some students well, and others better than other institutions.


My point with these four examples is this. We need to drive improvements in student outcomes by focusing on differences within institutions, specifically subcohorts of students that are recipients of Title IV aid.



NPR once went beyond headlines

Yeah, this song is on my mind as I consider the silliness of belief and the cost of higher ed.

I’m an innocent victim of a blinded alley
And I’m tired of all these soldiers here
No one speaks English, and everything’s broken, and my Stacys are soaking wet
To go waltzing Mathilda, waltzing Mathilda,
You’ll go waltzing Mathilda with me

–Tom Traubert’s Blues, Tom Waits

In the article, How Private Colleges Are Like Cheap Sushi, Anya Kamenetz writes about how private colleges discount tuition, through institutional grants in the form of student aid. Using economic theory of anchors and signaling to explain this behavior, she points to private nonprofit colleges making these choices to compete in a crowded marketplace. Nowhere does she mention that public institutions engage in the same behavior, albeit to a lesser degree. At least with in-state students. More and more we see tuition discounting for out-of-state students using some of the dollars from the significantly higher tuition paid by non-residents.

Years ago, I was part of the Technical Review Panel that established the net price calculations for IPEDS. They were never targeted at just the privates. We spent more time talking about how these calculations would apply to public institutions than any other single topic at the meeting.

In failing to mention public institutions and the subsidies they receive, it is hard to take the article as little more than a puff piece. As I have argued before, when we look at actual spending for comparable institutions, much of the difference between public and private disappears. (By the way, many of the people who argue with me about this are the same that used to argue that all graduate programs were heavily subsidized by undergraduate programs – which is not really the case they realize now. Professional graduate programs are for-profit centers in public and private institutions.) Public institutions tend to rely more heavily on adjunct faculty…as long as they are in a geographic region where they are available.

I’m not interested in giving the private colleges a pass. I am interested though in seeing people recognize the that two sectors learn from each other and frequently borrow strategies. There is a lot of cross-pollination that takes place.

No institution has a right to survive. Especially not the those that are expensive and have low graduation rates with low measures of student success beyond completion. That should just as readily apply to institutions in all sectors. Survival is not a right.

Let’s also keep in mind that a primary culprit here is USED. Through the use and control of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the Department inserts itself into any discussion about price and cost through the resulting Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) – regardless of its accuracy. I have heard enough financial aid policy people, both in and out of the Department and the White House, refer to FAFSA as a “rationing tool” far more often than as an “accurate depiction of what a family can afford.”

Actually, I have never heard the latter.

We have a situation where a couple of generations of Americans were fortunate to have access to a free, or almost free, college graduation. This was possible because they were willfully ignorant of how tax dollars made this possible.

An awful lot of people went to college from groups that never had the opportunity previously. This was a good thing. Many students across all groups made good use of the experience. Many did not.

Now that the tax support for higher education has dramatically been reduced per student, college is seen to be much more expensive and not worth the cost – often based on the experiences and outcomes of those that did not make the best of their college experience.

I think the realities are this:

1) College (or any education) is never worth more or less what one puts into it. Yes, the credential has a value, but sooner or later, one can’t hide behind the credential and must demonstrate knowledge and ability to keep learning.

2) A large part of the costs of college have little to do with the specifics of education. Living expenses, for one, followed by athletics and building costs. Athletics is the only one that can possibly be eliminated and that seems unlikely.

3) Even if we trimmed, chopped, all the non-education costs, that would probably just allow a return to a more accurate cost of education. How? Colleges would stop relying so much on adjuncts. Adjuncts are nice additions to the faculty when they are local professionals with lots of experience to add value to a program. When they are used to provide a large portion of the education as contingent, part-time employees, it is just another form of an abusive system that does not serve the institution or its students well.

I realize nobody wants to pay anything for education. Unfortunately, that is just kind of stupid. Good education is always going to be fairly expensive because it involves lots of human interactions with humans with advanced education that was expensive to achieve. We can continue to work to find less expensive ways to deliver education content and to assess mastery, but engaging, coaching, and mentoring will probably not get cheaper. Unless it is something left in the hands of androids and robots, but then I start thinking about government or school contracts for these androids and it is doesn’t seem that will actually cost less.

We’ll be fighting over the cost of education, especially higher education, for decades, I expect. Until we reach the point where we recognize that we have reduced the costs and trimmed the unnecessary expenses to the point we can’t go any further, institutions will continue to be creative in pricing and aid strategies. Just as every other sector of the economy does.

I’ve rambled enough through this, and probably shouldn’t publish it, but what the hell. It is essentially an allergic reaction to something stupid.

And you can ask any sailor, and the keys from the jailor,
And the old men in wheelchairs know
And Mathilda’s the defendant, she killed about a hundred,
And she follows wherever you may go
Waltzing Mathilda, waltzing Mathilda,
You’ll go waltzing Mathilda with me

And it’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace,
And a wound that will never heal
No prima donna, the perfume is on an

Old shirt that is stained with b lood and whiskey
And goodnight to the street sweepers, the night watchmen flame keepers
And goodnight to Mathilda, too

About the Undeclared Major as a Dead Horse

…I have not finished beating it.

Quick recap: FSA is requiring all Title IV awardees submitted by institutions to have a valid CIP Code (Classification of Instructional Programs), including students in undeclared or undecided status. Virginia institutions have been running into difficulty because they have reporting undeclared students to us for over 20 years using code 90.0000, which is, alas, a Virginia-specific code. It is thus not found in the official CIP 2010 tables and students submitted with these codes have been rejected. USED is advising institutions to use 24.0102 – General Studies.

Apart from my argument that students who are not, by definition, enrolled in a program and should not have a valid CIP code – unless it’s definition is undeclared. This is not the case of 24.0102. However,while  I grant the Illustrative Examples of “Undeclared” and “Undecided” might seem to make it a logical choice, I think a step was missed.

What step? How about checking to see if degrees are awarded under 24.0102? After all, a BA awarded in General Studies would seem to be a pretty declarative statement, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it also seem that someone had decided that was an appropriate major?

In 2012, there were 84,118 degrees at various levels awarded nationwide based on the IPEDS Completions report.


In 1992, there were 24,357 degrees at various levels awarded with CIP 24.0102.

Oops. It is a growing problem.

In the grand scope of things, this is a relatively minor problem. Unfortunately it demonstrates how little thought is given to future data collections and future uses of data. Any analysis of these data will be inconclusive, misleading, or wrong, because researchers won’t be able to separate out students who were actually enrolled in a General Studies program v. those who were undeclared.

It would be so very easy to add 00.0000 or 99.9999 or some other code to the valid value table that is based on CIP Codes to avoid this problem. If the logic is that all degree-seeking (and thus potentially aid-eligible) students are enrolled in a program, this is just wrong. Some schools, including one of my previous employers, did not, possibly still does not, allow students to select a major until after the third semester. This allows them to experience more of the liberal arts and sciences before settling down to focus on just one.

I am curious to know if this was a conscious, intentional decision by the department, or a development choice by the contractor that was subsequently (and thoughtlessly) approved by the person running the contract.