Government can overestimate college costs

Federal listing of college costs often fail to calculate the rising supplements provided by student aid, grants, and loans.

As the New York Times reports, “The government’s official statistic for college-tuition inflation has become somewhat infamous. It appears frequently in the news media, and policy makers lament what it shows.No wonder: College tuition and fees have risen an astounding 107 percent since 1992, even after adjusting for economywide inflation, according to the measure. No other major household budget item has increased in price nearly as much.But it turns out the government’s measure is deeply misleading.

images“For years, that measure was based on the list prices that colleges published in their brochures, rather than the actual amount students and their families paid. The government ignored financial-aid grants. Effectively, the measure tracked the price of college for rich families, many of whom were not eligible for scholarships, but exaggerated the price – and price increases – for everyone from the upper middle class to the poor.The good news is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has gradually begun to change its methods since 2003, to capture the effects of financial aid. It will take more time to know how well those efforts are working. But the bureau won’t alter the historical data, which means the long-term comparisons will never capture the actual cost of college for American families.

“Those oft-cited comparisons, notes Sandy Baum, a George Washington University professor and an expert on college costs, says, are “certainly misleading.”

“The discrepancy matters because the country is in the midst of a roiling debate about whether college is worth it. Various pundits on both the left and right have taken to claiming that higher education is overrated and often not worth it. The shocking increase in college costs, according to the official Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, is part of their argument. Continue reading “Government can overestimate college costs”

Court upholds race in university admissions

From the New York Times: “In a long-running affirmative-action case, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Tuesday upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s consideration of race as one of many factors in admissions.images

“We are persuaded that to deny U.T. Austin its limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity would hobble the richness of the educational experience in contradiction of the plain teachings of Bakke and Grutter,” Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham wrote, referring to two previous affirmative-action rulings by the Supreme Court.William C. Powers Jr., the president of the University of Texas at Austin, said he was pleased with the decision upholding the admissions policy.

“This ruling ensures that our campus, our state and the entire nation will benefit from the exchange of ideas and thoughts that happens when students who are diverse in all regards come together in the classroom, at campus events and in all aspects of campus life,” he said.Texas’ “Top Ten Percent Plan” guarantees the top graduates of every high school in the state a place at the flagship Austin campus or other universities in the state system, and because many Texas high schools are largely segregated, many black and Latino students are admitted to the university under the plan.

“While the Top Ten Percent Plan boosts minority enrollment by skimming from the tops of Texas high schools, it does so against this backdrop of increasing resegregation in Texas public schools, where over half of Hispanic students and 40 percent of black students attend a school with 90 percent-100 percent minority enrollment,” said the majority opinion, in which Judge Higginbotham was joined by Judge Carolyn Dineen King.While the University of Texas does get some diversity from the plan, the majority opinion said, it can constitutionally make further efforts to increase diversity.

“U.T. Austin has demonstrated a permissible goal of achieving the educational benefits of diversity within that university’s distinct mission, not seeking a percentage of minority students that reaches some arbitrary size,” the opinion said.Judge Emilio M. Garza wrote a lengthy dissent, arguing that while the university claims that its use of race was narrowly tailored to meet its diversity goal, it never defined that goal, making it impossible to say whether the use of race actually was tailored to meet it. Continue reading “Court upholds race in university admissions”

On paying for book publication

At almost any gathering of academic publishers or librarians, you’ll hear someone float the idea—sometimes phrased as a question—that the model for publishing scholarly monographs is broken.

imgres-3As InsideHigherEd reports: “Two sets of ideas aired at the Association of American University Presses’ annual meeting, held here this week, don’t say the model is damaged beyond repair. But the proposals, both from groups outside the university-press community, suggest that it needs to be retrofitted, at the least.

“One possible approach came from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the other from a task force on scholarly communications run jointly by the Association of American Universities and the Association of Research Libraries. Both raised the question of how to better subsidize the digital publication of scholarly monographs, and both included the notion that faculty authors’ home institutions might do more to help pay for those books to be published. Such support would help deal with what university-press people often call the “free-rider problem,” in which institutions without presses—most of them, in other words—leave it to those with presses to support the system that gives faculty authors publication credentials.

“The AAU/ARL task force describes its plan as a “prospectus for an institutionally funded first-book subvention” that would shift the burden of payment to authors’ home institutions. That would “address the principal causes and effects of the market failure for monographs,” the prospectus says. It envisions that colleges and universities would agree to pay for an openly available “basic digital edition” of some faculty members’ first books; scholarly publishers could offer those titles for sale in other formats too.

“The plan also envisions that universities with a high level of research activity would offer subventions for three or four books a year, with an “annual subvention exposure” of roughly $68,000 to $73,000. Small colleges would pay for one or two books a year, and offer more modest subventions.  Continue reading “On paying for book publication”

On valuing teaching

How do you change academic culture? One reason that question gets asked a lot is that it’s so hard to answer. Another reason is that so much of academic culture needs changing.images

How might we create a culture that actually esteems effective teaching? The value of such a thing ought to be clear, if only because it would blunt some of the frequent public criticisms of universities for a too-narrow focus on research. But creating a teaching culture hasn’t proved so easy. It’s not that campuses don’t harbor great teachers—even the most research-intensive universities do. But those professors usually tend their personal classroom gardens on their own. They don’t labor as members of a community—or culture—that rewards their teaching and propagates their best ideas about it.

The challenge of how to make good teaching into a communal value has been the subject of the Teagle Foundation’s academic philanthropy for some years now. Last month the foundation convened a meeting, “Community of Scholars, Community of Teachers,” to showcase the efforts of some of its grantees. Professors and administrators described what they had done to create “teaching-positive” environments in the liberal arts at their institutions.

Every one of the grant programs centered on the teaching of undergraduates by graduate students. That’s not surprising. Graduate students do an enormous amount of that work at most universities, so they’re necessary members of any university’s teaching community. But the programs on display at different institutions employ graduate students differently, and at different levels.

Cornell University is working from the bottom up. The university’s teaching center recruited graduate students (in both the humanities and the sciences) for a new fellowship program that leads to a certificate. Fellows studied technology, assessment, and related topics, and did independent research on teaching. Continue reading “On valuing teaching”

Who graduates and who doesn’t

When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there imagesare a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.

The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.

When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability. Rich kids do better on the SAT, so of course they do better in college. But ability turns out to be a relatively minor factor behind this divide. If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores. Take students like Vanessa Brewer, who do moderately well on standardized tests — scoring between 1,000 and 1,200 out of 1,600 on the SAT. If those students come from families in the top-income quartile, they have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating with a four-year degree. If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.

The good news for Vanessa is that she had improved her odds by enrolling in a highly selective college. Many low-income students “undermatch,” meaning that they don’t attend — or even apply to — the most selective college that would accept them. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more selective the college you choose, the higher your likelihood of graduating. But even among the highly educated students of U.T., parental income and education play a huge role in determining who will graduate on time. An internal U.T. report published in 2012 showed that only 39 percent of first-generation students (meaning students whose parents weren’t college graduates) graduated in four years, compared with 60 percent whose parents both graduated from college. So Vanessa was caught in something of a paradox. According to her academic record, she had all the ability she needed to succeed at an elite college; according to the demographic statistics, she was at serious risk of failing. Continue reading “Who graduates and who doesn’t”

USC writing program heads for the hills

A private graduate college in Vermont stepped in to save a writing program axed by the University of Southern California.

The Vermont College of Fine Arts offered to take over USC’s master’s of professional writing program after the California private university announcedit would end the program, citing a “business decision” amid an ongoing review of its Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.images

Thomas Christopher Greene, the Vermont college’s founding president, said he decided to try to save the 43-year-old program in part because his college and USC share faculty. While the program didn’t fit USC’s vision, it fit Greene’s.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for USC’s arts and sciences college said that Dean Steve Kay and other officials are working to make sure current writing program students can graduate, either at USC or from Vermont.

“He recognizes the excellent pedagogy of the MPW program, but has made this determination as a business decision,” said the spokeswoman, Emily Cavalcanti.

For the Vermont College of Fine Arts, the acquisition – for free – of USC’s program may be something of a coup, if it can capitalize on it.

“Essentially, it’s really an opportunity to create a residential program with some wind at its back,” Greene said. Continue reading “USC writing program heads for the hills”

How you do matters more than where you go

The bad news for students applying to selective colleges is that getting accepted to any one of them really is harder than it used to be.images

As the New York times reports, “Many colleges have reduced the number of American teenagers they accept (in order to globalize their student bodies) at the same time that the American teenage population is growing, as I wrote last week.

“But there is some good news, too, and it’s worth spending a few minutes on it. It sheds some light on the right way for high school students to think about the application process.

“First, amid all the anxiety over this subject, students should remember that the college you attend matters less than many people think it does. Research has shown that students with similar SAT scores who attended different colleges — say, Stanford and the University of California, Davis — have statistically identical incomes. (Low-income students are the exception; the college they attend does seem to matter.) Yes, Harvard graduates make high salaries on average, but it doesn’t seem to be because they went to Harvard.I recognize that this research will not convince many teenagers and their parents. They’ll still care enormously about the admissions process. So another bit of encouraging news is also worth considering: Even if an individual college is harder to get into, there seem to be more total spots at excellent colleges.Over the same period that colleges like Harvard and Stanford have been admitting more foreign students, several other changes in higher education have also been occurring. Continue reading “How you do matters more than where you go”

The popularity of death studies

At Kean University, students are dying (as it were) to get into Norma Bowe’s class “Death in Perspective,” which has sometimes carried a three-year waiting list. images-2WSJ Online reports that “On one field trip to a local coroner’s office, Dr. Bowe’s students were shown three naked cadavers on metal tables. One person had died from a gunshot, the other from suicide and the third by drowning.

“The last corpse appeared overweight but wasn’t; he had expanded like a water balloon. A suspect in a hit-and-run case, he had fled the scene, been chased by police, abandoned his car and jumped into the Passaic River. On the autopsy table, he looked surprised, his mouth splayed open, as if he realized he had made a mistake. As the class clustered around, a technician began to carve his torso open. Some students gagged or scurried out, unable to stand the sight or the smell.

“This grim visit was just one of the excursions for Dr. Bowe’s class. Every semester, students also leave the campus in Union, New Jersey, to visit a cemetery, a maximum-security prison (to meet murderers), a hospice, a crematory and a funeral home, where they pick out caskets for themselves. The homework is also unusual: Students are required to write goodbye letters to dead loved ones and to compose their own eulogies and wills.

“Sure, it’s morbid. But graduates of Dr. Bowe’s death class and others like it across the U.S. often come away with an important skill: the ability to talk frankly about death. Continue reading “The popularity of death studies”

It’s rejection season

Enrollment at American colleges is sliding, but competition for spots at top universities is more cutthroat and

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anxiety-inducing than ever.In the just-completed admissions season, Stanford University accepted only 5 percent of applicants, a new low among the most prestigious schools, with the odds nearly as bad at its elite rivals.

As the New york Times reports, “Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are, inevitably, rejecting a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted. Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.Isaac Madrid applied to 11 colleges, a scattershot approach that he said is fairly typical at his private high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif. Students there are all too aware of the long odds against getting into any particular elite university. “It was a crazy amount of work and stress doing all those essays by the deadline and keeping up my schoolwork, and waiting on the responses, and we had more than $800 in application fees,” he said.Mr. Madrid, 18, got a taste of how random the results can seem. He was among the 95 percent turned away by Stanford, but he got into Yale, which he plans to attend, and he admitted having no real insight into the reasons for either decision.Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said he saw “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” in admissions. “Kids see that the admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot,” he said. “So they send more apps, which forces the colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps.” Continue reading “It’s rejection season”

Women accumulate larger student debt

When Kristine Leighton graduated from a private college five years ago with a degree in hospitality, she owed $75,000 on student loans.

Each month, she paid the minimum amount of $450 and lived at home with her parents on Long Island, N.Y.

NPR reports that “At first, she was working at a hotel for $10 an hour; money was tight. Even after she got a job in Manhattan making $75,000 a year, she still couldn’t afford to move out. She funneled her earnings into car

payments, credit card bills and debt, and a monthly commuter train pass. The loan payments left little extra

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money for things like an emergency fund.At one point she upped her monthly student loan payments to around $1,800 for almost a year, in an effort to chip away at her debt as much as she possibly could. To prepare for the future.”I was trying,” Leighton says.

“I had this great job, this great career, but I still couldn’t afford to move out of my parents’ house.

“Women have made gains in the workplace but there’s still a wage gap. Although attending college costs the same for both genders, women are more burdened by student loan debt after graduating. They spend a higher proportion of their salaries on paying off debt because, well, they have lower salaries to work with than men — from the very start.After college, with $75,000 in student debt, Kristine Leighton struggled to pay it off and start her adult life. “I was trying,” she says. “But I still couldn’t afford to move out of my parents’ house.”

“A study by the American Association of University Women found that one year after college, nearly half of women working full time, and 39 percent of men, were devoting more than 8 percent of their income toward their debt. That may seem small, but when you are fresh out of college, the combination of living expenses, credit card bills or debt, a 401(k) and a little left over for savings — if you can hack it — adds up. Continue reading “Women accumulate larger student debt”

Disabilities and college life

New college students with disabilities are often insecure.

As InsideHigher Ed reports,”Navigating a complicated bureaucracy for the first time with far less institutional support than they had in high school, these students often must overcome stigma and ignorance surrounding their disabilities and advocate for themselves, which they’re often not used to doing. The alternative: risk not getting the tools they need to succeed academically. That’s difficult enough. But some people make it harder.

“I literally had a professor say, ‘Well, I’ve never had a student of that kind before, so I don’t know what to do,’ ” one college employee said here Tuesday at the American College Personnel Association’s annual conference. “But the student was standing right there ready to take their test. It felt so violating.”At a session here exploring what students with physical and psychological disabilities have to say about their collegiate experiences, it was clear that professors have a lot of learning to do.

“I have faculty who are more dismissive of something like bipolar disorder than they would be of something like cerebral palsy,” one attendee said. Because the affliction is psychological rather than physical, she said, “they don’t see it as being as challenging.”But the student affairs and services staff in the room blamed themselves, in part. One person admitted it’s “embarrassing” that his small private college does not offer any disabilities service training to workers in the campus writing center.

Continue reading “Disabilities and college life”

Rethinking plagiarism

Professors often frame plagiarism as an ethical problem, with a simple solution: don’t do it. imagesAs InsideHigher Ed reports, “For students tempted to plagiarize knowingly, that approach might work. But the academic integrity rhetoric ignores the fact that students sometimes unintentionally plagiarize or misrepresent source material in their work, panelists said Thursday during a session on the topic at the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

“Stephanie Roach, associate professor and director of writing programs at the University of Michigan at Flint, recalled a class discussion about why students misuse sources in their work. Students named all the usual suspects – the assignment was too hard or they ran out of time, for example.

“But Roach was struck by a student who said, “I didn’t think I was that person.” The student had crossed a boundary she’d never thought she would, and Roach wondered how it had happened. The professor said she later mused with colleagues that the war on plagiarism was like the war on drugs, in that academe tells students to “Just say no,” painting a bright line between right and wrong and assuming students have the tools they need to make the right choice.

“But sometimes they don’t. Students might misrepresent a source because they don’t understand it, or don’t know how to weave it in with their own thoughts, panelists said. And open-source culture, where facts and thoughts easily can be “plucked” from webpages, makes that supposed bright line dimmer still.Valerie Seiling Jacobs, a master of fine arts in nonfiction writing candidate at Columbia University, doesn’t lecture her first-year writing students on intentional plagiarism, she said. She tells students that if they’re going to deliberately misuse others’ work, “then you have bigger problems than I can ever help you solve.”Instead, Seiling Jacobs focuses on inadvertent misuses, which are far more plentiful. Continue reading “Rethinking plagiarism”

Protecting the public from for-profit colleges

The Obama Administration announced today new steps to address growing concerns about burdensome student loan debt by requiring career colleges to do a better job of preparing students for gainful employment—or risk losing access to taxpayer-funded federal student aid.

The proposed regulations released by the U.S. Department of Education “will help to strengthen students’ options for higher education by giving all career training programs an

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opportunity to improve, while stopping the flow of federal funding to the lowest-performing ones that fail to do so.

“Higher education should open up doors of opportunity, but students in these low-performing programs often end up worse off than before they enrolled: saddled by debt and with few—if any—options for a career,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The proposed regulations address growing concerns about unaffordable levels of loan debt for students enrolled in these programs by targeting the lowest-performing programs, while shining a light on best practices and giving all programs an opportunity to improve.”

“To qualify for federal student aid, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at non-profit and public institutions prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation. Some of these programs, whether public, private, or for-profit, empower students to succeed by providing high-quality education and career training. But many of these programs, particularly those at for-profit colleges, are failing to do so—at taxpayers’ expense and the cost of students’ futures.

Students at for-profit colleges represent only about 13 percent of the total higher education population, but about 31 percent of all student loans and nearly half of all loan defaults. In the most recent data, about 22 percent of student borrowers at for-profit colleges defaulted on their loans within three years, compared to 13 percent of borrowers at public colleges. Continue reading “Protecting the public from for-profit colleges”

Those starting college worry about money

The 2013-14 academic year marks a half-decade since the economic recession hit, but concerns about the costs of attending college are influencing incoming freshmen more than ever, a new survey shows as reported by InsideHigherEd.

“While more than three-quarters of this year’s freshmen were admitted to their first-choice institution, an all-time low of 56.9 percent chose to attend it. Nearly 46 and 48 percent — both all-time highs — said price and financial aid, respectively, were “very

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important” in their decision about which institution to attend. Among students who were accepted but did not enroll at their first-choice institution, about a quarter said lack of financial aid from that college was a very

important factor in their decision, and 60 percent said the same of being offered financial aid from the institution they chose to attend.

“The record-setting numbers are not an anomaly. Last year’s survey found that financial concerns increasingly affected students’ decision-making in ways both educational (where to attend college and what to study) and personal (why to attend and whether to live on campus). So it appears the impact of the 2008 economic recession has only gotten stronger from year to yea

“As state economies have recovered, we haven’t really seen all of those dollars come back into higher education, and it’s concerning that they may be gone for good,” said Kevin Eagan, interim director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, which publishes the report annually. “Institutions cannot be too comfortable resting on their laurels and expecting that academic reputation will carry as much weight, or more weight, than any other factor in whether admitted students choose to enroll.”

“The annual survey is The American Freshman: National Norms. The report is usually released in January, but last fall’s federal government shutdown delayed the results because the U.S. Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, on which CIRP relies for the report, was blocked for a time. The survey includes 165,743 first-time, full-time students entering 234 four-year American colleges and universities of varying selectivity and type. Continue reading “Those starting college worry about money”

Rewriting the SAT

In July 2012, a few months before he was to officially take over as president of the College Board, David Coleman invited Les Perelman, then a director of writing at M.I.T., to come meet with him in Lower Manhattan.

As the New York Times reports, “Of the many things the College Board does — take part in research, develop education policy, create curriculums — it is perhaps most recognized as the organization that administers the SAT, and Perelman was one of the exam’s harshest and most relentless critics.

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“Since 2005, when the College Board added an essay to the SAT (raising the total possible score from 1,600 to 2,400), Perelman had been conducting research that highlighted what he believed were the inherent absurdities in how the essay questions were formulated and scored. His earliest findings showed that length, more than any other factor, correlated with a high score on the essay. More recently, Perelman coached 16 students who were retaking the test after having received mediocre scores on the essay section. He told them that details mattered but factual accuracy didn’t. Continue reading “Rewriting the SAT”

Rethinking tenure

It’s no secret that tenured professors cause problems in universities.

As the New York times puts it: “Some choose to rest on their laurels, allowing their productivity to dwindle.

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 Others develop tunnel vision about research, inflicting misery on students who suffer through their classes.

“Despite these costs, tenure may be a necessary evil: It offers job security and intellectual freedom in exchange for lower pay than other occupations that require advanced degrees.

“Instead of abolishing tenure, what if we restructured it? The heart of the problem is that we’ve combined two separate skill sets into a single job. We ask researchers to teach, and teachers to do research, even though these two capabilities have surprisingly little to do with each other. In a comprehensive analysis of data on more than half a million professors, the education experts John Hattie and Herbert Marsh found that “the relationship between teaching and research is zero.” In all fields and all kinds of colleges, there was little connection between research productivity and teaching ratings by students and peers.

“Currently, research universities base tenure decisions primarily on research productivity and quality. Teaching matters only after you have cleared the research bar: It is a bonus to teach well. Continue reading “Rethinking tenure”

Adjuncts in poverty

When you think about minimum-wage workers, college professors don’t readily come to mind. But many say that’s what they are these days, as NPR reports:

“Of all college instructors, 76 percent, or over 1 million, teach part time because institutions save a lot of money when they replace full-time, tenured faculty with itinerant teachers, better known as adjuncts.

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“Kathleen Gallagher, a published poet and writer with advanced studies and a master’s degree, spent 20 years as an adjunct English professor at several colleges in Akron, Ohio. The most she’s ever made in a year is $21,000; last year, she made $17,000.

“After one college laid her off last summer, Gallagher was desperately short of money, so she sold her plasma. “It is embarrassing to talk on the radio and say, ‘I think I’ll have to go give some blood,’ ” she says with a sigh. “But I needed gasoline. I have applied for other work,” she says. “I had interviews, but then I remembered what I feel like in the classroom.” Gallagher tears up. She says teaching is her life, her calling. She’s always assumed that eventually, a college somewhere would offer her a full-time professorship, but that just doesn’t happen as often anymore. There’s a good reason for that, says Rex Ramsier, vice provost at the University of Akron, where Gallagher is teaching one class. Continue reading “Adjuncts in poverty”

Ranking schools by student happiness

The Obama administration wants to produce new ratings that will allow prospective college students to identify institutions with high graduation rates, solid job placement records and generous student aid. But what if students just want to be happy?imgres

“A study discussed in Insidehigher Ed today documents the statistically significant impact of several Princeton Review rankings of colleges on quality-of-life issues. A”t least according to the study, applicants may be be swayed not just by academics (or the qualities the Obama administration wants to highlight) but by rankings that indicate that students are happy, and think that their campus is beautiful.

“The quality-of-life ranking of the Princeton Review that receives by far the most press attention (party school), however, does not appear to have much of an impact on the applicant pool, with the exception of a decline in applications only evident among out-of-state students.

“Princeton Review rankings are fairly well known in admissions circles for their limitations. The rankings are based entirely on student surveys at their own institutions. So students are reacting to how they feel about student happiness, interaction with professors and the quality of food — without any basis for comparison to other institutions. No part of the ranking actually involves anyone comparing institutions. But the study being released today — being published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis — says that these rankings matter to prospective students. (The article abstract is available here.) Continue reading “Ranking schools by student happiness”

What is merit, anyway?

As college presidents went to the White House Thursday to talk about new efforts to attract more low-income students to higher education,admissions leaders gathered here and talked about how they define merit.

InsideHigherEd asks, “Who is admitted? Who gets aid? When spots and the aid budget are limited, who gets priority status?

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“Speakers turned to definitions (from dictionaries, Latin and Greek) and to philosophy, and generally agreed that merit in higher education must mean more than having the highest grades and test scores. But beyond that, things get complicated. Recruiting a more socioeconomically diverse class is a great thing, everyone seemed to agree at the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice of the University of Southern California.

“But is that still the case if your rankings slip and your SAT average drops a smidge? Nancy Cantor, who spoke here, was described as heroic by many for doing that at Syracuse University. But Cantor has left Syracuse and her successor seems much more interested in rankings than she was. And for institutions that compete for students, decisions that might be applauded here as ethical can be quite difficult. A case study was presented by Jenny Rickard, vice president for enrollment at the University of Puget Sound. She described how Puget Sound, between the 1970s and today, evolved from a local commuter college to a national liberal arts college, attracting increasingly competitive students.

Continue reading “What is merit, anyway?”

How grad school could be changed

By Leonard Cassuto “I talk a lot in this column about how graduate programs might be run differently. The graduate enterprise faces a lot of problems, so there’s plenty to talk about. But I don’t run a graduate program, and we don’t hear enough from the people who do.

‘There’s a reason for that. Administrators can’t dissociate themselves from their institutions when they speak. As any administrator will tell you, even the most casual remark can become the object of Kremlinological scrutiny and speculation. With that concern in mind, I recently conducted an email interview with a dean who works with graduate education in the arts and sciences at a well-endowed private institution—let’s call it Very Good University. He’s a full professor who came up through the faculty ranks and was named a dean less than a decade ago. Because I’ve shielded his identity here, he was able to offer some bracing observations and sound prescriptions. Here is our exchange. What sorts of changes would you like to see in American graduate study?

“The biggest one is that our doctoral curricula need to be changed to acknowledge what has been true for a long time, which is that most of our Ph.D. students do not end up in tenure-track (or even full-time faculty) positions—and that many of those who do will be at institutions that are very, very different from the places where these Ph.D.’s are trained. The changes will differ from program to program but might include different kinds of coursework, exams, and even dissertation structures. Right now we train students for the professoriate, and if something else works out, that’s fine. We can serve our students and our society better by realizing their diverse futures and changing the training we offer accordingly. The other necessary change: We need to think seriously about the cost of graduate education. There is a perception that graduate students are simply a cheap labor force for the university, and that universities are interested in graduate students only because they perform work as teachers and laboratory assistants cheaper than any one else. At elite universities—or at least at elite private ones—that is simply not true, and I am glad that it is not. It is absolutely true that graduate students perform labor necessary for the university in a number of ways, but it is not cheap labor, nor should it be. Continue reading “How grad school could be changed”