Making financial aid work again

There’s a kid out on my corner, hear him strumming like a fool
Shivering in his dungarees, but still he’s going to school
His cheeks are made of peach fuzz — his hopes may be the same
But he’s signed up as a soldier out to play the music game

There are fake patches on his jacket — he’s used bleach to fade his jeans
With a brand new stay pressed shirt — and some creased and wrinkled dreams
His face a blemish garden — but his eyes are virgin clear
His voice is Chicken Little’s — But he’s heir to Paul Revere

My last post inspired this:

So, yeah, the whole “add real financial aid” thing is really difficult. Sure, all we need is money to throw at the situation. But what will that really fix? It solves the immediate problems of access, but we are in this for the long haul. Leastways, I am. I would like to see things change for the better before I retire. Besides, this is still along the lines of reinventing college, an effort that would not be accomplished overnight.

So, if we think about this as an effort for the long haul, what is the problem we are trying to solve?

Create/Increase affordable access to an undergraduate education seems like a reasonable place to start. Of course, then we get hung up on the word “affordable.” Let me tell you, it is tough word, a hard word, to discuss in policy circles. Lots of the folks that are “in charge” or think that they are, have a definition when challenged. Usually it is pretty supportive of the status quo. After all, if college is currently unaffordable, then why does (has) enrollment keep (kept) increasing? Apparently debt it is not a problem. (Not for those already done with a much smaller far behind them and long paid off.)

Could be that students are scared of being poor and the higher ed industry has been pushing the increased earnings over a lifetime associated with a degree compared to some college or no college. Of course, institutions tend to be comfortable selling this aspect of college, right up to the point that we (I) start measuring it rigorously.

So here’s a new definition:

No student shall have to borrow money to cover any part of the total Cost of Attendance beyond the Estimated Family Contribution.

And he’s got Guthrie running in his bones
He’s the hobo kid who’s left his home
And his Beatles records and the Rolling Stones
This boy is staying acoustic

There’s Seeger singing in his heart
He hopes his songs will somehow start
To heal the cracks that split apart
America gone plastic

Think about it. Why on the green earth should a student with EFC=$0 have to borrow $12,000 per year? (Approximate net price of some fine under-supported public colleges for students from families with incomes of less than $30,000/year.) If students with a positive EFC choose to borrow, that is their free choice (although it may in truth be necessity in some families). This strikes me as a measurable and workable definition of affordable.

Unfortunately, it has some near-fatal flaws. First, it requires that the federal need formula be accurate and meaningful since it defines the EFC. Talk to lots of financial aid officials, including those within and without USED, and formerly of the White House, and they will admit that the FAFSA has become a rationing tool. The validity of the EFC should not be accepted without a box of pickling salt. Second, because it is based on Cost of Attendance, we would need some validity checks for institutional estimates of textbooks, travel and incidentals, and off-campus living costs. Braden Hosch from Connecticut demonstrated the issues with these estimates at the PIRS Technical Symposium last February.

And now there’s Dylan dripping from his mouth
He’s hitching himself way down south
To learn a little black and blues
From old street men who paid their dues

‘Cause they knew they had nothing to lose
They knew it
So they just got to it
With cracked old Gibsons and red clay shoes

Playing 1-4-5 chords like good news
And cursed with skin that calls for blood
They put their face and feet in mud
But oh they learned the music from way down there

The real ones learn it somewhere
Strum your guitar — sing it kid
Just write about your feelings — not the things you never did
Inexperience — it once had cursed me

But this is the truth of policy. Policy relies on imperfect measures and the art of the possible. Policy is also built on a foundation of shifting sand because devotees of today’s policy are subject to the hurricane winds of tomorrow’s needs, and tomorrow’s big ideas. So it seems to me we need to agree first on what affordable means.

Assuming we all agree that we are trying to make postsecondary education available to all who wish it, and not just those we think are worthy. Getting consensus on even just that might be challenge.

When the hurricane is coming on it’s not enough to flee
It’s not enough to be in love — we hide behind that word
It’s not enough to be alive when your future’s been deferred
What I’ve run through my body, what I’ve run through my mind

My breath’s the only rhythm — and the tempo is my time
My enemy is hopelessness — my ally honest doubt
The answer is a question that I never will find out
Is music propaganda — should I boogie, Rock and Roll

Or just an early warning system hitched up to my soul
Am I observer or participant or huckster of belief
Making too much of a life so mercifully brief?
So I stride down sunny streets and the band plays back my song

They’re applauding at my shadow long after I am gone
Should I hold this wistful notion that the journey is worthwhile
Or tiptoe cross the chasm with a song and a smile
Well I got up this morning — I don’t need to know no more

I am willing to push policy based on the definition above, as I think it is a good starting place. It is pretty easy to measure. Also, I’ve got data! Data that show that students with larger amounts of loans to meet their COA have lower graduation rates (http://research.schev.edu/?xhF1 – ignore 2009-09 as those are five-year gradrates as six-year rates are just now ready to be updated).

It’s not a fix, but a place to start.

It evaporated nightmares that had boiled the night before
With every new day’s dawning my kid climbs in my bed
And tells the cynics of the board room your language is dead
And as I wander with my music through the jungles of despair

My kid will learn guitar and find his street corner somewhere
There he’ll make the silence listen to the dream behind the voice
And show his minstrel Hamlet daddy that there only was one choice
Strum your guitar — sing it kid

-Harry Chapin, There was only one choice.

Reinventing College

I had planned to write something somewhat subterraneanly witty, inspired while sitting in medical waiting rooms and doing a mashup of Oliver!, Animal House, and something about strings. Sadly, that will have to wait.

Instead, I was presented with this tweet in my timeline.

Instant karmic clickbait to me. No way I could resist.

Nutshelling his (Adam J. Copeland) excellent post into the five bullet points reads thus.

1. Allow no high school credits to transfer.
2. No graduating college early.
3. No declaring one’s major until the spring one’s sophomore year.
4. Offer no more than 10 majors total.
5. Do away with minors.

From my minimalist perspective and a desire to keep things somewhat simple and deep, these are great ideas. I’ve never been a particular fan of AP credits, although my experience includes “credit-in-escrow” which simply means that the summer between my junior and senior I spent the mornings on the campus of MSSC (now MSSU) in BIOL-101.

Graduating college in less than four years is rarely ever much of an issue. Very few students do so in Virginia. (You want proof? I’ve got data right here –¬†http://research.schev.edu/?xJBL .)

As for not declaring one’s major until fourth semester, I’m all for it. This was the policy at Willamette University when I was there in the 90s. The last time we checked, 35% of undergraduate majors changed majors between fall and spring of their sophomore at Virginia public four-year institutions (excluding undeclared majors). There shouldn’t need to be any rush. Of course, the US Department of Education (USED) (PLEASE NOTE THIS – USDOE is the Department of ENERGY) does not seem to understand this as they are insisting (although it may be an unintended design flaw by the contractor who built the financial aid processing system) that undeclared majors be reported as Liberal Arts majors. Most majors are absolutely irrelevant to career choices. The concept of the major field of study is really to provide a focal point on which to apply and sharpen the skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, literacy, numeracy, and reasoning learned in general ed.

This bit about offering no more than 10 majors and eliminating minors. Hmmm. Yes, a large part of my legislature might jump at that idea. Here’s the rub though. If you think legislators are going to fund faculty in the remaining discipline areas at the graduate level, with low class loads, I suspect you are sadly mistaken. Further, graduate programs tend toward wanting applicants with a matching undergraduate programs.

But the larger problem is this.

To have a well-rounded general ed program, we need a variety of faculty representing various disciplines. What I have noticed about faculty throughout my career and as a faculty brat, is that as much as they work alone (or at least take credit alone) they really prefer to travel in packs. (Although herd is really more appropriate most of the time. Until they smell blood. Or grant money.) One PhD in sociology is going to waste away until another is found. They will soon want a third. Before long you have a department offering a major and multiple subspecialities, each representing their pet interests. Art faculty are the worst as they can convert just about any wannabe artist with an advanced degree into an art faculty member. Late 20th century art using junk and found objects is ample proof of this. (I got bit by junk art angel once upon a time in Alton, Illinois – I still have the scar.)

More seriously, building a solid academic program around a liberal education ideal, tends to require more diversity in faculty than allows an easy limit to a small number of majors. After all, any number selected is pretty much arbitrary in the absence of research on the topic. Faculty will push for more majors. So will administrators. Sometimes students will do so. So the number grows.

We also have an obligation to ensure that the knowledge continues to be shared, developed, and renewed in all disciplines. Colleges and universities are not just about educating the current flock of excellent and semi-excellent sheep.

The big question is this. Are their schools out there now that match this idea? Are there any that wish to do so?