Showing posts with label Inside Higher Ed. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Inside Higher Ed. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Southern Vermont College is closing: Shrinking demand for expensive liberal arts degrees

Inside Higher Ed has done a terrific job reporting on the demise of small liberal arts colleges, and Greg Toppo's recent story on the closure of Southern Vermont College is a fine Inside Higher Ed story on this sad phenomenon.

As Toppo reported, David Rees Evans, Southern Vermont's president, announced that the college is closing at the end of the spring semester. The college has been buffeted by a series of blows: an embezzlement scandal, accreditation problems with its nursing program (which the college resolved), and news that the college's principal accrediting body is planning to put the school on probation.

Closing was the right decision. After all, Southern Vermont only has 332 enrolled students--down from a peak of 500 students just nine years ago. President Evans candidly admitted that the trustees decided to announce its closure now rather than later due in part to fear of being sued if it continued recruiting new students and then shut down precipitously. That's what happened to Mount Ida College, and Southern Vermont wisely decided to wind down its affairs more transparently than Mount Ida apparently did.

President Evans partly blamed negative demographics for its predicament. "New England is in a bad way--especially the rural parts of New England," Evans said. Vermont's high school population, which provides Southern Vermont with about a third of its students, has declined dramatically, and it will decline even more in the years to come.

But demographics doesn't fully explain why so many small liberal arts colleges are closing. There are two more major dynamics in play--and small colleges have no means to counter either of them.

Small, private colleges are too expensive.  First, small, private colleges are simply too expensive for the average family to pay. Most of these small institutions charge somewhere north of $30,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board--around $120,000 for a four-year degree. Few families have the resources to pay these costs out of pocket, which means students must take out loans to finance their education.

It is true that small private colleges are discounting tuition drastically--on average by about 50 percent. But $13,000 a year in tuition (about half of Southern Vermont's posted rate) is still a big nut to crack. Increasingly, families are sending their children to attractively priced, regional public universities, which look pretty appealing compared to a rural college with less than 400 students.

A liberal arts education has lost its appeal.  Secondly, some would say tragically, a liberal arts education has lost its appeal in the minds of most Americans. There was a time when most Americans believed that a liberal arts education has intrinsic value. People once believed that a grounding in the liberal arts nurtured civic values, cultivated an appreciation for beauty, and promoted rational thinking. Liberal arts, it was generally believed, helped prepare young people for a fuller and richer life.

I don't think many people believe that anymore. Most young people are keenly aware that they will go into debt to get their college degrees, and they know they must get a degree that will lead to a well paying job or they will be in big financial trouble.  More and more undergraduates are majoring in business, and fewer and fewer are majoring in English, history, and philosophy.

Indeed, colleges themselves are finding it increasingly difficult to articulate exactly what a liberal arts education is these days. For example, there was once a broad consensus about what constitutes the canon of American literature. Scholars might disagree on the details, but most would identify The Great Gatsby as a great American novel--perhaps the great American novel. And most would agree that a basic knowledge of American literature includes at least a passing acquaintance with the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and perhaps Steinbeck.

That's not true anymore. After all, these authors are all dead white men. Where are the works of African American writers, Hispanic writers, women writers, LGBTQ writers?

Of course colleges can add books by marginalized writers to the curriculum, and most are doing so. But students can only read so much, and somewhere on the road to greater relevancy in the liberal arts students start asking--what's the f-cking point?

In fact, I have great sympathy with the critics of traditional liberal arts. I for one would rather be shot than read a novel by William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, or Henry James.

Moreover, literature that is particular to my own life experience means more to me than the so-called great works of American literature. I am a Catholic, and I have read widely in the works of Catholic writers: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Walker Percy, and Alice McDermott. I am a great fan of Myles Connolly's Mr. Blue, a hidden treasure of Catholic literature that is sadly out of print.

But I would not argue to anyone that the Catholic novels that mean so much to me should form part of the liberal arts curriculum. So how can anyone argue that every educated American should read The Great Gatsby?

And so the liberal arts colleges are dying--victims of demographics, soaring costs, and perhaps most of all by our increasingly diverse society that has become fragmented with regard to our understanding of what it means to be an educated American.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Trump should fire Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education for gross incompetence. If Trump fails to act, Congress needs to do whatever is necessary to drive her from office

Let us take our minds off Russia for just a moment and focus on a massive economic problem that affects millions of Americans: the collapsing student loan program. Forty-three million Americans now hold about $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, and a lot of that money will never be paid back. 

As the New York Times recently reported, borrowers defaulted at the rate of 3,000 a day last year; and a total of more than 8 million people are in default. Default rates are highest in the for-profit college industry; five-year default rates in this sector are almost 50 percent.

The Department of Education is trying to keep default rates down by pressuring borrowers into income-driven repayment plans, but that tactic isn't working. Nearly half the people who sign up for those plans drop out within three years; and a lot of defaulting borrowers don't even bother to sign up.

In short, the federal student loan program is a train wreck, a catastrophe, an unmitigated disaster. 

As President Trump's Secretary of Education, it is Betsy DeVos's job to address the student-loan crisis; but in a series of wrongheaded decisions, DeVos has demonstrated that she is either grossly incompetent or in bed with the sleazy for-profit college industry. President Trump must fire her immediately, and if he does not, then Congress needs to bring all its forces to bear to drive her from office.

Here is a brief list of DeVos's fumbling misbehavior:

First, she hired consultants from the for-profit industry to give her advice, which is like a hiring a burglar to be a bank guard.

Second, she canceled the Obama administration's order that restrained loan processors from slapping huge fees on student-loan defaulters who quickly brought their loans back into repayment status.

Third, she is overhauling the Department of Education's new regulations for processing borrowers' applications to have their student loans forgiven based on claims of institutional fraud. This bureaucratic delay tactic will leave thousands of defrauded college borrowers in limbo for months and even years.

And finally, DeVos blocked implementation of a Department of Education directive banning for-profit colleges from forcing students to sign mandatory arbitration clauses as a condition of enrollment.

In my view, allowing the for-profit colleges to continue including mandatory arbitration clauses in their student enrollment documents is DeVos's most outrageous decision. Mandatory arbitration clauses bar students from suing their institution for fraud and prevent students from banding together to file class actions suits against colleges that engage in massive fraudulent behavior.

About a year ago, the Century Foundation urged the Department of Education to require the for-profits to stop including mandatory arbitration clauses in their enrollment documents, and two for-profits--University of Phoenix and DeVry University, publicly agreed to abandoned them voluntarily.

Numerous commentators have criticized the use of mandatory arbitration agreements when they are used by corporations to insulate them from lawsuits. Just within the last year, two courts have struck down mandatory arbitration clauses that for-profit education providers tried to enforce. In one case, a university's arbitration agreement required California students to arbitrate their claims in Indiana!

Since taking office, DeVos has shown herself to be a stooge for the for-profit college industry. If she knowingly does the bidding of this shady racket, then she behaving reprehensibly. If she is acting on the industry's behalf out of ignorance, then she's grossly incompetent.

But her motivations don't matter. Betsy DeVos has got to go. If Trump doesn't fire her soon, then federal legislators should join in a bipartisan call for her removal. Americans deserve a competent Secretary of Education who will act in the public interest, not the interests of the venal for-profit college industry. 

References

Patricia Cohen. Betsy DeVos's Hiring of For-Profit College Official Raises Impartiality Issues, New York Time, March 17, 2017. 

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Trump administration rolls back protections in default on student loans. Washington Post, March 17, 2017.

Seth Frothman & Rich Williams. New data documents a disturbing cycle of defaults for struggling student-loan borrowers. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, May 15, 2017. 

Tariq Habash & Robert Shireman. How College Enrollment Contracts Limit Students' Rights. Century Foundation, April 28, 2016.

Magno v. The College Network, Inc.. (Cal. Ct. App. 2016).

Morgan v. Sanford Brown Institute, 137 A.3d 1168 (N.J. 2016).

News Release. Apollo Education Group to Eliminate Mandatory Arbitration Clauses. May 19, 2016.


Friday, June 13, 2014

We Don't Need No Stinkin' College Rating System: President Obama's Plan to Rate Colleges on Value Faces Congressional Opposition

President Obama is determined to impose some sort of college rating system on the nation's higher education institutions, even though the higher education community opposes it. And President Obama is also getting blow back from Congress.

Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Democrat Representative Michael Capuano of Massachusetts introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives opposing Obama's college rating proposal. The resolution states in part:
[T]he Administration's proposal to rate postsecondary institutions through an oversimplified Federal rating system that is not supported by postsecondary institutions, statute, or by the House of Representatives, will lead to less choice, diversity, and innovation, and should be rejected. 
Senator Lamar Alexander has also stated his opposition to the college-rating plan in a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Senator Alexander expressed skepticism that the Department of Education can come up with a reliable and workable rating plan.

I don't know whether Representatives Goodlatte and Capuano are right to conclude that a college-rating system will lead to less diversity and fewer choices in higher education.  But I do think the plan will have no beneficial impact on the spiraling cost of attending college and will add yet another level of bureaucracy to universities that are already bloated with too many administrators.

Don't form a committee on snakes.
Photo credit: NBC News

In my mind, the Department of Education's focus on a college-rating system is a diversion from the urgent task of reforming the federal student loan program.  As Ross Perot once observed, if you see a snake, kill it. Don't form a committee on snakes.

My prediction is this:  President Obama's college-rating proposal is going nowhere.

References

Michael Stratford. Obama defends college rating system amid growing backlash from Capitol Hill. Inside Higher Ed, June 11, 2014.

House Resolution Strongly supporting the quality and value of diversity and innovation in the Nation's higher education institutions and strongly disagreeing with the President's proposal to create and administer a Postsecondary Institution Rating System. [Introduced by Reps. Goodlatte and Capuano on June 10, 2014]

Friday, May 16, 2014

"Be sure To drink your Ovaltine": Inside Higher Ed partners with a Inceptia, a "debt prevention" company, to produce a tepid booklet of bromides on the student loan crisis

"Be sure to drink your Ovaltine"
Remember the Olvatine scene from the movie The Christmas Story? Ralphie Parker, an avid fan of the Little Orphan Annie radio program, writes to the program's sponsor and asks for a "Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring."

When the  "Little Orphan Annie" program comes on the air, Ralphie anxiously uses the ring to decode Little Orphan Annie's secret message to  radio listeners. Ralphie thinks the message might have something to do with one of Little Orphan Annie's adventures.

But he is wrong.  When he finishes decoding the message, the disillusioned Ralphie finds that it just an advertisement for the program's sponsor. "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

"A crummy commercial?" Ralphie wails. "Son of a bitch!"

I felt a bit like Ralphie when I looked at the online collection of Inside Higher Ed articles that Inside Higher Ed produced recently on the future of student loans.  I was expecting some hard hitting pieces on the student loan crisis. But what I found was a booklet of tepid pieces that was produced in partnership with Inceptia, a nonprofit company that cryptically describes itself as a "leader in default prevention and financial education solutions."

What does Inceptia do to prevent student loan defaults? I'm not sure, but I'll bet its activities include contacting students who are at risk of default and encouraging them to sign up for economic hardship deferments. Senator Tom Harkin's committee report on the for-profit loan industry pointed out that putting at-risk students into economic hardship deferments is good for the colleges because those students will not be counted as people who default on their loans within three years of beginning repayment--even though they are not making payments on their loans. And if those students officially default after DOE's three-year default measurement period expires--who cares? 

Inceptia is a unit of the National Student Loan Program (formerly the Nebraska Student Loan Program), which is located in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Randy Heesacker, Inceptia's CEO, is well paid.  I couldn't find out his current income, but I found the Nebraska Student Loan Program's 2011 federal tax return.  According to that tax filing, Heesacker received total compensation of $378,457 when he was CEO of the Nebraska Student Loan Program (including bonuses and deferred compensation).

Does that sound like an extravagant salary for a non-profit oranization's employee?  Don't worry.  The Nebraska Student Loan Program's tax return assured the IRS that "[o]utside legal counsel undertakes a comprehensive evaluation of the compensation and benefit packages for officers and other affected employees of the organization, comparing the same relevant industry and other market comparables."

Oh, that's a relief.

And if Heesacker made $378,457 in 2011 as CEO of the Nebraska Student Loan Program, what do you think he's making now as CEO of Inceptia?  

I think it is a safe bet that the articles Inside Higher Ed chose for its online booklet were acceptable to Inceptia.  And not surprisingly, most of the articles quoted various student-loan organizations that basically support the status quo.

One writer advocated larger Pell Grants. Someone argued for lower interest rates on student loans.  And one organization wants lending standards loosened for Parent PLUS loans. 

No one in the  Inside Higher ED's collection of articles advocated for revising the bankruptcy laws to make it easier for distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. No one recommended elimination of the Bankruptcy Code provision that makes private student loans very difficult to discharge in the bankruptcy courts.

No one recommended tighter restrictions on the for-profit college industry or regulations to stop abusive collection practices or the garnishment of of Social Security checks.

No--almost everyone who participates in the public conversation about the future of the student loan program is an insider--an organization that benefits directly or indirectly from the $100 billion that the federal government spends each year to subsidize the higher education industry, which has been raising the cost of attending college every year for the past 30 years.

I'm sorry Inside Higher Ed and Inceptia--your vision of the future of student loans is not sustainable.

Someday--and I hope that day comes soon--we will have to introduce radical remedies for the student loan mess.  Those remedies--to be effective--will have to include bankruptcy relief for distressed student loan debtors, strict regulation of for-profit colleges, and a candid reporting on what the student-loan default rates really are.

 References

Inside Higher Ed (with support from Inceptia). The Future of Student Loans: A Selection of Higher Ed Articles and Essays. May 2014.