Let’s Kill FAFSA

Friend and colleague Carlo Salerno (@edanalyst) calls for eliminating FAFSA instead of simplifying it. I agree. Let’s do that. Let’s rely solely on the tax return for calculating the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), Pell grant eligibility, and student loan eligibility. I see no reason for one agency to create and manage a complex form/endeavor with a black box calculation for EFC that relies on data that another agency collects, calculates, holds, and enforces. It is would be more efficient to do things this way, save money, and eliminate  the need for some applications to be verified.

It also eliminates families sending detailed financial information to colleges before they can be told their price.

I have a dog in this fight. I have build a fair amount of reporting based on family income, including graduation rates. For example, we have published for two years now, graduation rates of students from families with incomes of $150,000 and above that pretty much demonstrate that the Pell Institute report that stimulated this blog post by Matt Chingos and Susan Dynarski was wrong on the face of it as the data could only be assumed to be irrelevant if Va was so unrepresentative. In fact, Virginia has just about the highest four-graduation rates of public institutions in the country.

I would be willing to give up access to these income data in pursuit of greater efficiency and less burden.

How would we calculate Pell eligibility?

Perhaps like this:

Pell Value – Total tuition and Fees, plus cost of text books, for most expensive public community college in nation.

0 to 200% of Federal Poverty Level – 100% (No income cut-offs, based on family size, 100% Pell for each family member in college).

EFC = 5% of family income above 150% of poverty level divided by number of family members in college.

201% to 400% of Federal Poverty Level – 50% of Pell for each family member enrolled in college, eligible for 100% of remaining need to covered by subsidized loans covered by PAYE.

EFC = 10% of family income above 150% of poverty level divided by number of family members in college.

Burning Bridges

I guess I am tired and feeling cranky. Thursday’s InsideHigherEd story from Michael Stratford, U.S. Keeps Scrutiny of Risky Colleges Secret convinces me that USED cares very little about its credibility. Apparently the Department is afraid to release the names of over 500 institutions under funding restrictions and enhanced scrutiny.

But the department has refused to provide the names of those colleges because of the “competitive injury” it may cause them.


And what the hell will happen to institutions receiving the lowest PIRS ratings? Seriously, this makes no sense. Unless they are designing the ratings to give specific institutions the lowest ratings. This would mean they are targeting a specific group of institutions and that the game is rigged. Or that a different group of inmates is in charge of each of these projects. The Department really needs to think about consistency in its behavior and make an appeal to the President to back off PIRS or ask the Wizard of Oz for a backbone and courage. Yeah, I am probably reducing or eliminating the number of invitations I will receive from the Department in the future with this comment, but I am just so disappointed in this kind of inconsistency.

Of course, I am still waiting for Ted Mtichell or someone else from the Department to call me about using state data, but apparently that’s not going to happen. Perhaps because I suggested that our timeline probably would not be as quick as theirs. I’m not sure why that would matter since they haven’t hit any of their promised deadlines yet. (I often have that problem as well, and that is the nice thing about self-imposed deadlines – you can move them at will.)

Published on the same day, also at InsideHigherEd, is this story covering the release of a report from the National Student Clearinghouse showing that nearly half of the graduates with four-year degrees had experiences in community colleges. In fact, 65% of had three or more semesters of enrollment at a community college. Matt Reed writes about this pointing to the disconnect between thjhese data, the IPEDS GRS, and what typically is defined as success or failure for community colleges. Reed makes the further connection between community college transfer to four-year institution and student debt. What he leaves out is the connection to PIRS.

Yes, everything comes back to PIRS.

If PIRS happens and Congress somehow embraces it, it will drive federal data collections and definition of metrics for years to come. For good or ill, the concept paper from Senate HELP Committee suggests how things might be throttled back, but Congress has never been shy about adding things it wants to College Navigator.

Ham on rye, Don’t hold the Mayo

We, my wife and I, spent last week in Jacksonville, FL at the Mayo Clinic. I was simply driver and escort. This was her week of attention and an attempt to find answers.

Mayo is an interesting experience. Once they agree to see you and work out the doctors you need to see, and the initial tests you need, they tell you when to show up and how to send your records to them. They also recommend you hand-carry them if things are not scheduled well in advance. Then they send you an itinerary.

When you arrive at the information stand just before registration and check-in, the volunteers print a fresh itinerary for your use. After check-in, you’re off to the first stop on your itinerary. I don’t know how it works with other patients, but in our case our first stop was with a specialist that might be the most knowledgeable of the core of my wife’s least-easily identified issues. We spent almost 90 minutes with this doctor while she took a full history, made an examination, talked about possibilities, ordered tests, and made referrals to other doctors.

She also explained how the system worked and how to make best advantage of our time there.

After the consultation was completed, we returned to the waiting and were asked to standby for a new itinerary. Twenty minutes later we were provided one that included a lab appointment, appointments for that week, and appointments several weeks out. We were then told that some consultations had to be handled in a specific order, which ones were, and then how to talk with schedulers about trying to find openings for the week we were there as well as how to request standby appointments.

Each floor is essentially its own practice and has its own specific rules about standby appointments and scheduling. While this lack of uniformity is frustrating on the surface, I think it makes sense. The amount of time these doctors spend with patients is quite impressive and they do seem much more interested in identifying and solving problems than rushing patients through assembly-line medicine.

Tuesday morning, following an orthopedic consult that brought a great deal of needed clarity, we began a day of sitting patiently in hopes of a consult with a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation. By mid-afternoon we learned that the doctor had promised to see us. Just before five we were called and guided to an examination room. For more than an hour my wife was able to tell her story to someone who not only seemed to care, but who believed the reality of her pain and could explain its foundations. This doctor, as they all ended up being, was extraordinarily helpful and exemplified what I think we all wish our doctors to be.

By week’s end we had consulted with eight doctors, visited the lab three times, had three sets of x-rays, one abdominal CT scan, and an ultrasound. Along the way we had access to an online portal that allowed immediate access to her Mayo records, including her doctor’s notes – often the same day of the visit. The Mayo Clinic runs a good operation.

We came away without all the answers we wanted, but we now have greater clarity about what to pursue. Importantly, we also know some things not to do. Previously planned surgeries are now completely off the table. While these surgeries had been suggested to help her, we now know they are ill-advised for someone with her issues. So, something less to worry about over the next couple of years. All of this made the trip worthwhile.

I suppose I should make some comparison to higher education, but I am not sure I can. Colleges, four-year colleges especially those that are predominantly majority-serving, do their best  to admit people who need the least help and are most likely of success. Mayo, and other specialty clinics, do a lot of the opposite. Guess which job is tougher? Certainly there are parallels to minority-serving institutions and community colleges, but I am not sure these institutions are intentional about seeking the most challenging, the most interesting cases. They simply do not turn their backs on them if they do show up.

We still have a long way to go. Of what we have learned, some has been a relief, more is quite scary. I wish I could take this burden from her and carry it myself. It may be though that she is stronger than I as she has been carrying this burden from birth and it has simply gotten worse. My wife has been quite amazing.

“We Shall Overcome” is a protest song. It is, as I have said before, also a love song. It declaration of strength and a commitment to shared strength. It’s a song of love. It’s a protest against injustice and badness.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.


Two Ratings – Why Not Five?

USED has announced that it is considering two ratings systems for PIRS. One using raw data for consumers for consumers, one using input-adjusted metrics for accountability (access to Title IV student financial aid).

Why not five?

Why not ratings based on wealth-adjusted metrics?

Why not ratings of public institutions based on levels of state-support adjusted measures?

Why not adjustments based on the proximity of Starbuck’s (since that was apparently a factor in Sweet Briar’s closing)?

Clearly I can go on (and on) because once you go down this path there are dozens of legitimate arguments to make. A good ratings “system” would allow different ratings to be created based on the user’s preferences or needs. But to say we will have two ratings will create confusion – especially if the Department is not COMPLETELY transparent in its methodologies and the results of each are markedly different.

I imagine a dining room table conversation where a parent says, “Gee, the this college is rated a poor performer by the consumer rating, but a high performer to be eligible for Pell grants  and loans, so it must be doing something right, even if almost no one seems to graduate in six years.”

Yep. That will be helpful.

A Wall

This is a wall.

It is a very nice wall. image

It is slightly abused and dirty at the moment from kid grime and drywall dust and chunks.

But that is not the problem. The problem is that it hides a Very Bad Thing. What is it that it hides? Why, two runs of very crappy pipe. The water lines for the upstairs bathrooms run down the inside of this wall.

But you would never know this unless you happened upon some accurate blueprints somewhere. Even if you knew the pipes were there, you wouldn’t know they were crappy without evidence of failure elsewhere.

It looks harmless, does it not? More than that, it looks to be doing its job holding up the ceiling and keeping the door to closet separate from the door to the bathroom. What more could you really want?

You don’t know what’s going on until you open things up occasionally and take a look.

Or something bad happens.

Like the plumbing breaks and you find out the pipe is crap.

Or you learn you have a brain tumor and you feel that you have an invader in your head or body is attacking itself.

I suspect the students, staff, and faculty of Sweet Briar understand this feeling. It’s something that could have been solved with transparency and openness. The decision and announcement still would have been painful, but probably not as painful.

Surprises like this just suck.

When the plumber gave us a rough estimate of replumbing the entire house, he said, “A lot of times I give that figure and come back and find a for-sale sign. Some people just don’t want to pay for a new plumbing.” Unfortunately, I am going to have to guess that rarely, if ever, do potential buyers get told of major plumbing needs. After all, it is all behind a wall or ceiling and it might just be okay. I just could not do that to someone. It’s wrong on so many levels.

Anyhow, I feel that if you can’t trust a wall, you can you trust?

Hiding behind the sheetrock



A few weeks ago, without effort, I broke an upstairs bathroom water line and flooded the house about midnight. When I explained the situation to the plumber at 1:00 am and $165/hour, I am sure he thought I was crazy and hiding the fact that I had done something completely idiotic. Seriously, the pipe just snapped inside the wall while just moving stuff around inside the vanity.

About an hour later, my wife and I are downstairs and she is watching me mop up the living room and pick up the sections of sheetrock that had fallen. (The largest piece falling my head is what actually woke her.) The plumber was upstairs capping the lines in the vanity and we both saw a section of pipe just fall to the floor. The plumber came downstairs holding the hot water valve in his hand.

“I’ve never seen that happen before. I grabbed the valve to cut it off and it just snapped.”

And it happened several more times.

So, while much of the ceiling is missing, we’ve had the plumber back of couple times to completely re-plumb the upstairs bathrooms. (Ultimately we will have all the water lines replaced this year.) He brought an assistant with him this week so the job wimageould go a bit faster. I asked him if the situation had been explained to him. “Sure, I’ve just never heard of that happening before.”

A little while later I got to watch as it happened to him.

“You thought I was crazy, didn’t you?”

So, these pipes have me freaked out a bit. They will all be replaced. It has also been pointed out that these same pipes have been connected directly to the water heater, instead of to 18-24″ of copper piping between the CPVC and the water heater.This a code violation that never should have been passed.

What’s behind the sheetrock is something we rarely see. In fact, when we buy a house, or choose a college, we do it largely on faith in the processes and adopted standards. We assume that any relatively new house (and ours was built in 1999) is built to the established building codes. We also assume (hope) that quality materials were used and used correctly.

Right now, that seems like an awful lot of (misplaced) faith.

For the record, I can do a lot of things. I started looking at the water lines thinking, “you know, I could replace those myself.” But, I’ve read enough posts on the plumbers’ fora to understand that “it takes more than a can of glue and a buttload of CPVC to be a plumber.” It does indeed, and I am okay with that. I would rather appreciate the fact the someone else has taken the time to master plumbing skills than to attempt to so myself.  I look at the new lines thinking, “It is a shame to have cover this up. It’s doubly a shame that no one else will appreciate this to the degree that I do.”




This below is what crap pipe looks like. Manufactured in January 1999, Flowguard by Charlotte Pipe. Maybe it was a bad manufacturing run, maybe it was mishandled by the original plumber, maybe the glue was flawed, or maybe it had spent too much time in sunlight. Maybe if Charlotte Pipe had at least acknowledge receipt of my email, i would not show the details. But this is the beauty of the open Internet. Someone may see this and tell me of a related case. Or maybe the manufacture will find this and respond. Google Flowguard CPVC and browse the results. Opinions on Flowguard are all over the map.

imageI saw this evening on Twitter that there is a bill, or at least a proposal, to allow states to create their own USED-recognized accrediting body. Historically that topic has come up in Virginia from time to time. It is an interesting idea, but not one I am interested in pursuing. While I could create a hell of an accreditation function with our data resources, it still would not tell us what is behind the sheetrock. I suppose we could peak under the sinks and grab the valves and give them a good shake, from time-to-time, but we have been here 10 years and nothing like this has happened before.

In the end, I don’t really have a good answers beyond trusting the process and knowing that sometimes things break and require fixing. All the metrics in the world won’t show me what’s behind the wall.





You can do everything well and still fail

Subtitle: Some of you are focusing on the wrong things.

Subtitle: Life isn’t fair.

The board of Sweet Briar College announced today that it would cease operations with the end of the semester. It seems that they are taking a principled stand to go out on their own terms, with adequate resources to properly teach out the term and close down decently and in order. It is striking that SBC has a $94 million endowment, but over half of that is restricted in its use, significantly reducing the ability of the college to use endowment returns to fundoperations.

Sweet Briar is a fine institution that really does seem to do most everything well. Young women generally seem to thrive there, especially those that stay. Retention into the second year is not the greatest, but those that make it into the second year are pretty much going to graduate. From what I have observed the last 14 years from a distance, and on campus, it is a pretty special place.

The policy wonks have been excitedly discussing the increased applications and the declining yield rates.  The fact is that few young women seem to be really interested in attending a single-gender institution sitting on a mountain ridge an hour or four away from excitement and activity. I suspect there are far more than the approximately 200 that have enrolled each year, but finding them is not easy. As for the increased applications, those are easy enough to come by with a little work and little more mailing. A difference in 400 applications really is not that big deal to achieve with the available tools and consultants. It is much, much harder to increase the number of quality applications – applications from students really interested in what Sweet Briar offers, at a price that the students and the college can both afford.

The fact the entering students of 2013-14 had an 84% acceptance rate (Admissions tab) is pretty strong evidence that increasing applications alone may change very little.

A critical problem to my mind is the getting students in the door is only one part of the problem. A 63% graduation rate  is respectable rate, but for a small college with lots of one-on-one experience with faculty, I suspect most people believe it should be much higher. If not, what is the value of the small college experience? Again, as I said earlier, the “problem” (if it is a problem and not a feature of college) is in the first year retention. The entering class of 2008 had a 75% retention rate (148 students) into the second year. Six years later, 124 of those had graduated from Sweet Briar, or about 84 percent. A handful of others graduated from elsewhere in the Commonwealth. By prowling these data one can get a sense as to where some of the struggles are. It is a simple fact that any institution that struggles to constantly replace students that don’t persist to completion faces an uphill struggle for its existence.

But the fact remains that Sweet Briar is gem tucked away in the mountains. A gem like BridgewaterFerrum, Hollins, Lynchburg, Roanoke, and a host of other small, liberal arts colleges, that deserves more attention for all that it does well. Unfortunately the world is changing and it has never been fair.

I worry that we don’t wish to pay the costs to keep such experiences available. That we refuse to acknowledge that some things are not only somewhat expensive, they are also worth every penny.

On the other hand I admit to shopping at Walmart and Amazon. Not because of the price, but because of convenience. They are open when I have time. (But, if it is a stop on the way during “normal hours”  to just about anywhere else, I will avoid Walmart like the plague if I can get in and out quicker.) Small mom & pop stores are rarely open when I have time to shop. If I have to leave work early or go in late, the cost and inconvenience of the shopping trip has generally increased more than I wish to consider.

And this is the conundrum of the small rural college.

So, I’m supposed to take you seriously?

Yes, this is pure snark. It’s been building and I am tired.

Maybe it is just my experience, but I don’t assume we all see the same things.

Sometime in 1986-87, give or take a semester, one of my art classes went to Wildcat Glades to draw and paint. The instructor set to work right away with paper and oil pastel to recreate the waterfall. His colors were surprisingly way off for his normal style. In fact, when this was mentioned, he questioned the commenter, quite doubtfully. After all, it looked normal to him.

Until he removed his sunglasses.

“Oh wow! I never really thought about the way these filter color, nor have I worn them for color work before.”

Kind of an important lesson for all of us.

A couple years later, when I was at the The University Museum at SIUE, we were talking about the design of the new art building under construction. Tremendous amounts of glass blocks were to be used to give it a light and airy feel with a very contemporary design. And a tremendous amount of greenish light. The administration and architects seemed uninterested in listening to the experts who tried to explain that this might not be a good thing. It was finished after I left, so I hope it all worked out (I think they did use a different glass block). [These were the same people planning a gallery with lights at 24ft height, but only noted storage for a 12ft rolling ladder. We joked that the plan was to hire at least 12ft tall grad assistant each year.]

The lesson is that we need to be careful of being overly confident in what we (think we) see. Or measure.

If you assume that we all see the same thing the same way, you are probably wrong.

When I was a cocky, snarky, difficult to get along with art student, I would insist that I only saw six colors.  I don’t really recall what they were, it was just an annoying way to justify my choices in palette and design. It was also a way I chose to think about things because it had become clear that not many people saw things the way I did. (I’m not saying my was better. It was simply right.) Talking with other artists, I learned about their conceits and world views that informed how they saw things.

We all understood that light has different colors and it was fairly easy to change how someone perceived art by changing the qualities of the light on the art.

So before you damage a relationship by insisting something is one thing while someone else insists the opposite, maybe you should consider the lighting.

And just to be clear, this post is not about #TheDress. It is about #PIRS. And any other attempt  of rating, ranking, or measurement.