TIME Education

Colleges Pit Music Against Math as Funding Dries Up

Music Class Students
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Limited money is causing state schools to choose among subjects with the most demand

Bob Marley once sang that when music hits you, you feel no pain. But the music department at the University of Alaska at Anchorage could soon end up bruised, bloodied and down for the count.

That’s because music is being pitted against other subjects with stronger demand, such as business and engineering, as the public university cuts its budget in response to lower oil prices that have resulted in a drop in state tax revenue.

This is not happening only in Alaska. Colleges and universities across the country are going through the same painful process of winnowing their offerings to show students, lawmakers, and taxpayers they are serious about saving money. And what was once a theoretical conversation about the value of the humanities versus the sciences or business is now a very real debate over which academic programs will survive and what jobs will be lost.

Advocates welcome the chance to weed out costly programs with hardly any students, or force them to attract more and do a better job of graduating them. Critics say the budget-minded process threatens to preserve more popular departments that churn out employable graduates, such as biotechnology and nursing, at the expense of less pre-professional degrees like philosophy and history.

“That could be a very dangerous, unintended outcome,” says Sandra Elman, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the accreditor for Alaska and other northwestern states. “If this is going to be looked at in terms of a financial bottom line, you don’t have to be the head of Microsoft or Nike to know that the programs that graduate the most students might end up on top,” she says. “Faculty have the right to be concerned.”

Indiana State University was among the first schools to undertake a comprehensive review of its offerings, from 2006 to 2008, which resulted in the elimination or suspension of 48 academic programs, including art history, German, and journalism as it sought to trim a bloat of offerings that had led to 8,000 empty seats in classes.

The process was painful, says Robert Guell, an Indiana State economics professor and chairman of the campus academic senate, but it was a way of “culling the walking dead. Your perspective on this depends on whether you’re the organ donor or the organ recipient,” Guell says. “The body may be healthier overall, but it still doesn’t feel good for the donor.”

To save $6 million, the University of Southern Maine is cutting French, geosciences and applied medical sciences, and consolidating six other majors: English, philosophy, and history will be combined into one department, and music, art and theater will be grouped into another. Though French is still widely spoken in Maine, the French Department had graduated an average of 4.8 majors per year for the last five years.

Other institutions have adopted a model that ranks departments according to productivity and divides them into five groups, with the bottom 20% eliminated or reorganized.

Boise State University, for instance, over the summer instructed programs in the bottom one-fifth to plan for “significant change,” says Provost Martin Schimpf. Among those slated to be cut are bachelor’s degrees in bilingual education and geophysics and a master’s degree in physical education pedagogy.

Schrimp says the process, ordered by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, will help the public university consolidate programs that were teaching the same subjects and save $2 million a year.

“We create and eliminate programs all the time,” he says. “There’s a lot of overlap and interdependence. By having a universitywide conversation, these things pop out. That’s the value of the process itself.”

But prioritization can create its share of problems, especially at schools where faculty members have been cut out of the process. Critics point to the University of Northern Iowa, which in 2012 announced it would eliminate one-fifth of its academic departments.

A December 2012 report by the American Association of University Professors derided Northern Iowa’s eliminations as “created solely as a device for laying off members of the faculty whom the administration no longer wished to retain.”

In addition to music instruction, the proposals in Alaska could doom several other programs, including the respected Alaska Quarterly Review, a literary journal.

“It’s very difficult,” says Bill Spindle, a University of Alaska Anchorage vice chancellor who has helped lead the process, which aims to save about $7 million per year. “We want to prune, we don’t want to break off branches.”

The university has ranked its programs into categories including one that calls for “further review” of departments about which questions remain and that may not have long to live. A final decision is expected to be released this week, and Spindle says cuts will be even deeper than originally expected because of a state budget shortfall.

Among those most at risk include Chinese (“[T]his program should stop creating new courses and contemplating new programs when it has only part of one faculty position,” according to the university prioritization report) and two music programs (“This is a very expensive and relatively non-productive program, and there are serious opportunity costs with putting so many resources into something that produces only four graduates in three years”).

Music Department chairman Christopher Sweeney says the actual number of graduates over those three years was closer to seven for each of the two at-risk music degrees, but he acknowledged that even this number was lower than he’d prefer.

“As much of a nightmare as it was,” said Sweeney, “it was a good wake-up call on how to serve our population better.” But he added: “We are not going down without a very, very severe fight.”

The at-risk list also includes some surprises. Chemistry is on it (“The number of graduates is very troubling”) and a graduate certificate in nursing (“This program has weak student demand”).

Also surprising are the subjects that were rated as successful—art, for instance (“an impressive level of student-centric discussion”), and medical laboratory science (“Alumni survey data indicates grads are finding employment, mostly in Alaska”).

The university urged departments to explain their value by demonstrating proof of learning, but some didn’t take the hint, says Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy who helped lead the prioritization study. “We had programs provide evidence,” she says. “Then we had others that said, ‘Our students know this and this,’ without providing any evidence. It’s frustrating.”

Even professors who hate the thought of universities cutting programs acknowledge it needs to happen occasionally. Schools tend to grow more than they shrink, and some departments outlive their usefulness as employment trends change.

The key to avoiding problems is transparency and communication, says Jack Maynard, the Indiana State provost who led his campus’s prioritization.

“By doing that, you take away a lot of the weapons people would use: speculation and rumor,” says Maynard, who came out of retirement recently to return as the school’s interim provost. He says Indiana State used the process to transform its identity into a stronger campus focusing on rural health care.

At other schools, however, some fret that a change in identity would be the wrong outcome. New York City’s Lehman College, for example, is undergoing a prioritization process some professors worry could shift the school away from the humanities and toward science and engineering.

“A college needs to have a philosophy department,” says Duane Tananbaum, a Lehman history professor, “even if it’s not overflowing with students.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

TIME Education

What College Professors Can Learn From Alan Alda

Alan Alda Teaching Cornell
Alan Alda talks to scientists about effective communication during a workshop at Cornell University on May 22, 2014. Cornell University

The actor has long sought to make scholars better communicators, and more schools are starting to get on board

It may not be entirely surprising, in the rarefied confines of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to hear a member of the faculty let terms like “randomized controls” and “self efficacy” slip into casual conversation.

But the point of this exchange is to teach professors how to avoid them. Here in a windowless office in the basement of a red brick classroom building near Harvard Square, the faculty member, Mandy Savitz-Romer, has teamed up with the consultant Mary Tamer to translate academic jargon into comprehensible English.

“So what does work?” Tamer asks Savitz-Romer about her research into encouraging more high school graduates to go to college, prodding her for a few key, easy-to-understand takeaways. “If we wanted four or five things, what would they be?”

The result of the exercise will be a concise, bullet-pointed breakdown of Savitz-Romer’s work that could be read and understood by people who don’t speak the same complex academic language of education researchers. And it will be repeated with other faculty members as part of an ongoing initiative.

Tamer was brought on board to run a project at the graduate school called Usable Knowledge, one of many such efforts to help scholars and prospective scholars make their work accessible to everybody else—including, not coincidentally, the legislators and taxpayers who pay for it—and to teach students the clear communication skills employers are demanding.

“Those who are involved in funding academic research are really keen to see that it’s going to lead to something practical,” says James Ryan, the education school’s dean, who was trained not as an academic but as a lawyer. “If faculty are interested in their work having influence, paying attention to the language that they use is really important.”

As an example, he cites research about the benefits of pre-kindergarten education that someone thought to explain in the simplest possible way: by calculating that providing it would save more money than it would cost.

“That was genius,” Ryan says. “It’s a brilliant way of making the research not only accessible, but compelling.” And compared to a dense treatise advocating for pre-kindergarten using terms such as cognitive development and holistic instruction, “which one is going to make a better case?”

Many other schools are starting to see the value of simple language. The Global Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University helps not only faculty but also graduate and undergraduate students in all fields make sure their research makes the best case. In a competition at Villanova University, engineering students are required to explain their work to a retiree or a 12-year-old, who, in turn, explains it to a judge. The University of Delaware pairs students in engineering and journalism classes: the journalists to learn about engineering, and the engineers about communicating.

Stony Brook University has established an entire center for communicating science, named for the actor and director Alan Alda, who inspired it out of frustration with the scientists he met as host for 13 years of the public-television series Scientific American Frontiers.

“I must have interviewed about 700 scientists,” says Alda. “I just listened and tried to understand what they were saying. But they were in lecture mode most of the time.”

The actor remains involved in the center—there he’s called Professor Alda—and uses improv and other techniques to teach graduate students how to better convey their findings.

“The improvising games and exercises we do force you to pay attention to the person you’re communicating with,” he says. “That contact, that intensified observation, and being forced to play by a set of rules forces you to concentrate on the other person and forget about yourself.”

Among other things, Stony Brook runs a contest in which scientists have to explain a complex concept to 11-year-olds. Last year’s topic: What is time?

Duke University last year launched a program it calls the Forum for Scholars and Publics, which promotes plain speaking in not only science but all academic disciplines by bringing faculty members together to discuss their work with everybody else.

“Given how much the public supports these institutions, there’s a sense of a need for advocacy on the part of the university toward the public,” says Laurent Dubois, the Forum’s director and a professor of romance studies and history. “Universities as institutions need to think about this and find ways to speak to that broader public.”

And there’s a need for experts to share what they know in a way that can resonate with the public. A study by the National Science Foundation found that fewer than half of American adults surveyed understood that the earth orbits the sun once a year, that antibiotics do not kill viruses, and that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

“There’s a growing realization that a lot of the biggest issues in science require us to talk to each other,” says Elizabeth Bass, director of the Alda Center at Stony Brook, where two Ph.D. programs now require students to take a course called Communicating Science. “But communication doesn’t actually occur until somebody understands it.”

Meanwhile, she says, “There’s a growing realization that virtually all university research in this country is publicly supported. And academics owe it to the public to explain what it is they’re doing, and why it’s important to do.”

Harvard’s Savitz-Romer thinks so, too. Making her research widely understandable could hasten its progression from theory into practice.

“I love doing this, and getting the message out,” she says, back in the basement of the education school. “And as we all do more of this we’ll get better at it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why You Might Want to Take Student Loans Before Using Up College Savings

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “My daughter will be starting college this fall. I’m estimating the tuition will be about $25,000 each year. I’ve got about $45,000 put aside in a 529 for her. When should I tap that money?” —Henry Winkler, Colorado

A: The first thing you and your daughter should do is fill out a FAFSA, the federal financial aid application. Even if you think your household income will be too great to qualify for aid, it’s worth applying just to be certain, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college. “I have seen many cases where families assume they won’t receive any aid, but actually do qualify based on the number of children they have currently attending college or because the high costs of the tuition resulted in a lower than expected family contribution amount.”

Don’t worry that the savings you currently have in your 529 will hurt her chances for aid either. Federal aid will be reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the account and account distributions are not considered income, Kantrowitz says.

Next, she should apply for the most available in federal direct student loans. In her first year, she can borrow $5,500. In her second year, $6,500, and any of the years following up to $7,500. Because you only get to borrow a certain amount in these direct federal student loans—which have much lower interest rates than Parent PLUS loans or private loans—it’s worth borrowing the max each year and accruing that interest rather than waiting and trying to borrow the full cost of college her third or fourth year, says Kantrowitz.

If you have other savings accounts you can draw from, Kantrowitz recommends setting aside $4,000 a year from such an account for your daughter’s college education so that you can take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

With this credit, you get 100% of the first $2,000 you spend on tuition, fees and course materials paid during the year, plus 25% of the next $2,000. The credit is worth $2,500 off your tax bill. Also, 40% of the credit (up to $1,000) is refundable, which means you can get it even if you owe no tax.

The caveat: You will need to have a modified adjusted gross income of $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples, a year to get the full benefit. If you earn more than $90,000 or $180,000 for joint filers, you cannot claim the credit.

You cannot use any of the funds from your 529 to qualify for the tax credit since that plan is already a form of tax-free educational assistance. If you do not have an additional $4,000 a year to put toward her education, you can also qualify for the credit by using the student loan amount she received—but just know that you may not be also able to claim the student loan deduction on that amount since you’ve already received a tax break on it, says Kantrowitz. (Right now you can claim both, but Kantrowitz says that could change in the future.)

After deducting any grant aid, her student loan sum, and the $4,000 from another savings account, pay the remaining education expenses with funds from the 529 plan.

“Under this plan it is likely your 529 will be exhausted after her third year of college, or sooner if you don’t put aside that additional $4,000 for the tax credit each year,” says Kantrowitz.

To make up the difference you’ll need to secure another loan. If you own a home, consider home equity financing before PLUS loans, since the latter currently carry a 7.21% interest rate and come with an “origination” fee of about 4.3% of the principal amount you borrow.

If you must take the PLUS, you might be tempted to try to lock in current interest rates by borrowing to cover the first two years’ worth of expenses. But you’d end up having to borrow more since she’ll be getting less federal loan money those first two years, and you’d have to pay two more year’s worth of interest. Even with possible rate increases, you’re still better off taking the PLUS loans in her last two years.

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TIME Education

Catholic Colleges Tell Poor Kids to Go Elsewhere

The Catholic University of America campus with National
The Catholic University of America campus with National Shrine Basilica in Washington, DC. John Greim—Getty Images

Church-affiliated schools are among the nation's most expensive for low-income students

At Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., officials sometimes bring in low-income applicants and their families for counseling. The point of the sessions is not to encourage the students to attend, but to suggest they consider going somewhere cheaper.

The university needs to spend its financial aid to attract “higher-end students,” says W. Michael Hendricks, vice president for enrollment management — the kind of high-achieving, wealthy students that can improve a school’s prestige and bolster its bottom line. And he says the school has another, seemingly paradoxical rationale for dissuading low-income students: its Catholic identity makes the university hesitant to burden low-income families with debt. “It totally flies in the face of our mission,” Hendricks says.

Despite such sentiment, Catholic University charges the highest net price in America for low-income students — the cost once discounts and financial aid are taken into account — according to a study by the New America Foundation based on information reported to the U.S. Department of Education by the institutions themselves. And they have plenty of company among peer institutions.

At a time of escalating worry over access to higher education, Catholic institutions are in the uncomfortable position of comprising five of the 10 most expensive private universities for low-income students, and 10 of the top 28, the study found.

Some Catholic colleges “seem to have departed from what you would assume the principles of their faith would have compelled them to do,” says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income students.

“It’s disturbing that institutions give money in these very difficult times to students who don’t need it,” Haycock said, and “don’t focus their resources on those who absolutely need it the most.”

Colleges that charge the most to poor families, the New America Foundation researchers said, are giving increasing proportions of their financial aid to wealthier students, whose families can afford to pay the rest of the tuition. These kids often come from well-funded suburban high schools and have comparatively higher entrance examination scores and high-school grades that improve the colleges’ standings in rankings.

Officials at some Catholic colleges and universities say that, as a matter of survival, they feel compelled to spread small amounts of financial aid to a large number of these higher-income students, rather than give more of it to the poor. By making many small grants, they say, they can attract the number of tuition-paying students needed to keep the colleges in business.

It’s a sensitive issue for the nation’s 200-plus Catholic colleges, given that church teaching calls for a “preferential option for the poor,” which the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops has interpreted to mean that “poor people have the first claim on limited resources.”

Some Catholic institutions do succeed at keeping down costs for students with family earnings low enough to qualify for federal Pell grants — generally, $30,000 a year or less. But others are charging those students a net price that is equal to two-thirds or more of their families’ entire annual incomes.

At Catholic University, for example, the poorest students pay an average annual net price of $30,770. Philadelphia-based Saint Joseph’s University charges its poorest students $30,503; Saint Louis University, $23,882; the University of Dayton, $21,520; and Loyola University Maryland, $20,672.

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These schools also enroll low percentages of poor students. Only between 13% and 15% of the students they enroll come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants.

Five other Catholic colleges and universities, however, are among the 10 private colleges at the other end of the spectrum, providing a lower-cost education to comparatively high proportions of Pell students.

Saint Thomas University in Miami, for example, has an average net price of $8,072 for its lowest-income students, who make up more than half of its enrollment. Others with high proportions of low-income students and low net prices are Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and Calumet College of Saint Joseph in Indiana, Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif., and Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

“Some Catholic colleges are able to place a high priority on meeting the needs of very low-income families. Others have limited resources, making it more difficult to address those financial needs,” says Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “While embracing their faith tradition, our institutions still must contend with the realities of education costs that are true of any college or university in the United States.”

In fact, some of the Catholic colleges that charge the most have robust wealth in the form of their endowments. Saint Louis University has a $956 million endowment; the University of Dayton, $442 million; Catholic University, $264 million; Saint Joseph’s, $193 million; and Loyola of Maryland, $177 million, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Among the other Catholic universities with high net prices for low-income students, Villanova University has an endowment of $419 million, while Notre Dame has a towering $6.9 billion in the bank.

Gerald Beyer, a theology professor at Villanova, thinks high-cost Catholic colleges should try harder to move away from the “preferential option for the rich” adopted by many on-Catholic private private universities in the U.S. “By the very nature of their mission, Catholic universities must fight against this trend,” Beyer says.

He points to an overlooked passage from Pope John Paul II’s 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which says that Catholic universities should seek “to make university education accessible to all those who are able to benefit from it, especially the poor or members of minority groups who customarily have been deprived of it.”

Jesuit Catholic colleges and universities in particular stress principles of social justice, but three of the order’s universities rank high on the list of colleges that accept few Pell students and leave them with high net costs: Saint Joseph’s University, Saint Louis University, and Loyola University Maryland.

Saint Joseph’s spokesman Joseph Lunardi says the school takes the issue seriously. At an October meeting, he says trustees discussed its comparatively low proportion of Pell students, asking whether the university is “losing ground in their mission.”

Lunardi added that the proportion of Pell students would be higher if 1,000 part-time students were included, since 40% to 50% of them are low-income, and that the net-price figures collected by the federal government and used in the report include only students who receive federal financial aid, not all students.

Saint Louis University and Loyola-Maryland declined to comment.

The University of Dayton, which is affiliated with the Marianist order, said that, since the 2011-12 academic year covered by the New America study, it has instituted a four-year guarantee that students’ net price won’t increase and has taken other steps that are beginning to result in the admission of more Pell students and less student debt.

Of all the nation’s colleges, Catholic University is most closely identified with the institutional church. Its bylaws require that 18 of its 48 trustees be bishops. An annual collection in parishes across the country raises about $5 million for the university, which goes for scholarships issued through participating parishes.

Hendricks, the enrollment manager, says the school is “always struggling” with the moral implications of admission practices. “At Catholic schools in particular, we like to stay need-blind,” he says, referring to a waning practice under which universities accept applicants regardless of their ability to pay. “That’s our mission. It’s getting more and more expensive to do that.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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MONEY College

How College Costs Will Change in 2015

Although college costs are still increasing, they're increasing at a much lower rate than they have in recent years. Interest rates and repayment for federal loans have eased as well.

MONEY Student Loans

The Most Terrifying Stat About Student Loan Debt Isn’t What You Think

About half of student loan borrowers underestimate the amount of education debt they have.

It seems some college students need to work on their reading comprehension. Or their vocabulary. Whatever the problem is, some students aren’t grasping the concept of loans: 17% of first-year students who have federal student loans responded to a survey saying they had no student debt, according to a Brookings Institution report.

There are scores of stories and reports about the difficulty borrowers have repaying education debt, and that’s a serious issue, but the statistics about borrowers’ understanding of their loans and the cost of college are much more troubling.

The report from Brookings “Are College Students Borrowing Blindly?” cites some shocking figures, based on two data sets. The first, a survey conducted in spring 2014, included responses from first-time, full-time freshmen who applied for financial aid at their college, a “selective four-year public university in the northeastern U.S.” The second is the most recent result of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a nationally representative analysis of first-year, full-time undergraduates with federal loan information available in the National Student Loan Data System.

The data reveals that students are generally clueless about the costs of higher education and how they’re paying for it. Nearly half of students underestimated their debt loads by at least $1,000, with 25% of students underestimating their debt by $5,000 or more.

I’m in Debt? Really?

There are a lot of reasons students may not fully understand their student loan debt: Students may be confused about the different kinds of loans (like federal or private), their parents may have taken charge of figuring out their education expenses, they’re simply not keeping track of their finances, or they really don’t understand the fact that borrowed money must be repaid. There’s not really a good excuse, considering the students had to sign paperwork saying they’ll repay the loan as agreed.

The gap between perceived and actual student debt is potentially more troubling than the growing student debt load itself. Failing to understand the costs of college and how you’re paying for it sets students up for an unpleasant reality check and regret if they can’t afford the debt they incurred along their chosen career path.

Student loans are rarely discharged in bankruptcy, and failing to repay them has serious consequences on the rest of your financial life. Missing loan payments is one of the worst things you can do to your credit, and if you default on student loans, you may face wage garnishment and calls from debt collectors.

Consequently, a low credit score can leave you unable to secure other forms of credit at affordable interest rates, not to mention rent an apartment or get a job. To see how student loans and your other financial behaviors affect your credit score, you can review two of your credit scores for free every 30 days on Credit.com.

Ideally, you’re well prepared to handle your student loans when you enter repayment, but if you think your loan payments will be unaffordable, you have a few options. If you have federal student loans, you may qualify for a variety of student loan repayment and forgiveness options. If you have private loans, you may be able to refinance. At the very least, you should reach out to your student loan servicer to see if there’s any way to avoid defaulting on your education debt.

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TIME Education

Here’s the New Way Colleges Are Predicting Student Grades

Students Computers
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Data algorithms cover millions of grades from thousands of students

For years, Stephanie Dupaul would jokingly consult her collection of Magic 8 Balls when students asked her questions such as, “Will I get an A in that class?” Now, she can give them an answer far more accurate than anything predicted by a toy fortune-teller.

Dupaul, the associate provost for enrollment management at Southern Methodist University, is one of a growing number of university administrators consulting the performance data of former students to predict the outcomes of current ones. The little-known effort is being quietly employed by about 125 schools around the U.S., and often includes combing years of data covering millions of grades earned by thousands of former students.

It’s the same kind of process tech behemoths like Amazon and Google employ to predict the buying behavior of consumers. And many of the universities and colleges that are applying it have seen impressive declines in the number of students who drop out, and increases in the proportion who graduate. The early returns are promising enough that it has caught the attention of the Obama Administration, which pushed for schools to make heavier use of data to improve graduation rates at a White House higher education summit last week.

The payoff for schools goes beyond graduation rates: tracking data in this way keeps tuition coming in from students who stay, and avoids the cost of recruiting new ones, which the enrollment consulting firm Noel-Levitz estimates is $2,433 per undergraduate at private and $457 at four-year public universities.

“It’s a resource issue, it’s a reputational issue, it does impact — I’ll say it — the rankings” by improving graduation rates, Dupaul says.

At SMU, for instance, data analysis showed that students who applied early in the admissions process were more likely to ultimately earn degrees. So were those who visited the campus before enrolling, joined a fraternity or sorority, or registered for a higher-than-average number of classes.

From this and other knowledge, the university has built a predictive algorithm that can gauge the probability that a student will finish school, and prop up those who might not by sending academic advisors or deans to intervene.

Other universities also use detailed data to make sure students stay on track once they’ve arrived. Georgia State, for instance, has analyzed 2.5 million grades of former students to learn what may trip up current ones. That early-warning system, begun in 2012 to address a lower-than-the-national-average graduation rate, triggered 34,000 alerts last year about students who may have been in trouble, but didn’t know it yet.

It works by identifying risk patterns that can help catch students before they fall. For example, Georgia State’s data shows that students’ grades in the first course in their majors can predict whether or not they will graduate. Eighty-five percent of political science majors who get an A or B will earn degrees, but only 25% of those who score a C or lower will.

“What we used to do, and what other universities do, is let the C student go along until it was too late to help them,” says Timothy Renick, Georgia State’s vice president for enrollment management and student success. “Now we have a flag that goes off as soon as we spot a C in the first course.”

That student is invited to meet with an advisor and given the option of switching majors before spending more time and money on a losing proposition.

The university also uses its predictive algorithm to channel incoming freshmen with higher risk factors — like those who come from high schools where earlier graduates have been poorly prepared — into a seven-week summer session. Nine out of 10 of these students make it to the end of the first year, more than their classmates who entered without red flags.

And the analysis isn’t limited to first year students. Last year, some 2,000 Georgia State upperclassmen were hauled in for one-on-one sessions with an advisor when they signed up for courses that didn’t satisfy requirements for their majors — which the data showed would probably derail them — and moved to classes that did.

“Most students, when they take classes that don’t apply to their program, it’s not because they’ve always wanted to take a course in Greek philosophy,” says Renick. “It’s because they don’t understand the maze of rules that big institutions like Georgia State have created. And when they go off course, it’s a difference between graduating and not graduating.”

The university also uses 12 years of data from former students to nudge current ones toward majors that track more closely with their academic strengths, thereby increasing their chances of graduating.

“It’s a really simple process,” Renick says, “but it’s the kind of thing that higher education hasn’t been doing.”

Despite the promising early returns, most institutions have not embraced predictive data. Only about 125 of the more than 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions are using data in this way, according to the Education Advisory Board, a firm that helps Georgia State and other schools run such programs.

More will sign on, experts say, because it can do as much for the bottom line as it does for students. For every 1 percentage point improvement in the proportion of students data tracking keeps from dropping out, Renick says, Georgia State keeps $3 million in tuition and fees that would have otherwise been lost. So far, that rate has increased by five percentage points since the university started tapping this data two years ago, meaning it has more than recouped the $100,000-a-year cost of running the system and the $1.7 million per year it takes to pay an extra 42 advisors hired to help the students it predicts might fall between the cracks.

“It’s no longer just a moral imperative. It’s a financial imperative,” says Ed Venit, a senior director at the Education Advisory Board. “The students who are on their campuses now, they have to keep them around, hopefully ’till graduation.”

Yet graduation rates overall are down, not up, since 2008, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Only 55% of students earn their two- or four-year degrees within even six years, as they switch majors, flounder through required courses, and take classes they don’t need.

To Venit, analyzing that information — which schools already collect — can help avert such stumbles. “The data is so accurate that we can see the problems coming a mile away,” he says. “Higher education is lagging behind other industries in the use of this.”

That’s begun to change as students, parents, and policymakers press universities to provide a better return on their investments, and as universities themselves — especially public schools, whose revenues are under strain — are forced to become more efficient.

At Georgia State — where 80% of students are racial minorities, low-income, the first in their families to go to college, or from other groups that often struggle to graduate— the six-year graduation rate had fallen to a dismal 32% before the university began to look at data. It’s since increased to 53 percent.

“Think of going through college as driving a car and the destination of the car is graduation,” says Mark Becker, Georgia State’s president, a first-generation college student who went on to earn a PhD in statistics. “If you start drifting off the road, we want to straighten you out and keep you driving forward.”

Such aid is becoming increasingly important as the students arriving on campuses look more like the ones at Georgia State: less affluent, nonwhite, and often the first in their families to attend college.

“A lot of these are students who are just barely able to afford college,” Renick says. “Taking the wrong course, getting a couple of Fs, losing a scholarship, wasting credit hours all can stop them from getting a degree.”

Now the university is poring over its data to determine how to predict when financial problems might force students to drop out, and offering “micro grants,” with stringent conditions, to keep them enrolled. Nine out of 10 freshmen who were offered the grants last year stayed in school.

At Purdue University Calumet, where only 31% of students graduate in six years, 74% of students returned this fall — a 5% improvement over the year before. The gain preserved nearly $500,000 in tuition, and saved the school the expense of recruiting new students to fill those empty seats — an amount worth almost five times what the university says it paid to analyze and act on the data.

Southern Illinois University increased its return rate by an even larger 8.3 percentage points, to 68%, and its revenue by more than $2 million, according to John Nicklow, who was provost when the process was begun last year. Those gains came after the university used data to identify a much larger proportion of students who needed help than was previously thought. The cost was about $100,000, part of it paid for by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to dig into this data,” says Nicklow, an engineer by training. “More of us need to do it.”

Sitting amid her collection of 30 Magic 8 Balls at SMU, Stephanie Dupaul calls predictive data “one of those waves that’s coming. A lot of schools just haven’t caught the wave yet” But she cautions that even the best algorithms can sometimes be about as precise as the toys that line her desk.

“We still have to remember that data alone is not always a predictor of individual destiny,” she says, “even when ‘Signs Point to Yes.’”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Colleges Continue to Put Burden of Price Hikes on Poorest

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Even colleges that signed a White House pledge to help low-income students are making it more expensive

Decked out in black tie and formal dresses, guests at Mr. Jefferson’s Capital Ball finished their salmon with horseradish sauce just in time to dance to classics like “Shout” and “My Girl” in the Grand Ballroom of Washington, D.C.’s historic Mayflower Hotel. Some of the people who paid up to $400 a couple to attend the event even joined in the Electric Slide.

The mood was understandably festive: The gala had the commendable purpose of raising money for scholarships to the University of Virginia.

But not the kind of scholarships that go to low-income students based solely on their financial need. The proceeds from Mr. Jefferson’s Capital Ball were for merit aid for applicants who have the high grade-point averages and top scores on entrance tests that help institutions do well on college rankings. Merit aid can also attract middle- and upper-income students whose families can afford to pay the rest of the tuition bill — an attractive proposition for schools that are increasingly reliant on revenue from students.

As institutions compete to lure top-performing applicants in this way, regardless of their need, they’re raising their net prices much faster for the lowest-income students than for higher-income ones, according to an analysis of newly released data the universities and colleges are required to report to the U.S. Department of Education.

This trend includes the 100 higher-education institutions whose leaders attended a widely publicized White House summit in January and signed a pledge to expand the opportunities for low-income students to go to college. In fact, the private universities in that group collectively raised what the poorest families pay by 10%, compared to 5% for wealthier students, according to the analysis by The Dallas Morning News and The Hechinger Report based on information the U.S. Department of Education released this month covering 2008-09 to 2012-13, the most recent period available.

Not only did the schools at the White House summit raise their net prices faster for the poorest families on a percentage basis, the new figures show; nearly a third increased the actual dollar amount more quickly for their lowest-income students.

The effect, critics say, is that college is becoming less accessible to lower-income students.

“All too many elite, extremely wealthy colleges and universities that should be operating as engines of socioeconomic mobility are instead calcifying inequality,” says Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education at the nonpartisan think tank The Education Trust.

Some colleges that have raised their net prices dispute the federal data, and note that even families in what appear to be higher-income brackets need help paying for college.

The White House has scheduled a follow-up summit for Thursday on the issue of keeping college affordable for the lowest-income students. “Institutions need to remain vigilant in making sure that the students with the highest need have the highest access to aid,” saysTed Mitchell, U.S. Under Secretary of Education.

Understanding Net Price

Colleges are required to annually report their average net prices—the total cost of tuition, fees, room, board, books, and other expenses, minus federal, state, and institutional scholarships and grants—to the Education Department. They must also break down those prices based on students’ family income, from the lowest—$30,000 or less—to the highest—$110,000 or more.

There are limitations to the data. They include only full-time freshmen who get federal grants, loans, or work-study jobs. The most recent figures cover the period ending more than a year before that initial January White House summit. And some schools dispute how net price should be determined and use their own calculations that are different from the federal formula.

But the federal figures give the only standardized picture of what students from different income brackets pay to study at the same university or college. The data also make clear that, while lower-income students at many of the institutions that signed on to the White House pledge still pay less than higher-income ones, their net prices are rising faster on an inflation-adjusted percentage basis than the net prices charged to students more able to pay. In some cases, costs for the wealthier families are actually falling.

Even at the 36 taxpayer-supported public universities that signed the promise to help low-income families, the average net price for poor students rose 25% in the last four years, from about $8,000 in 2008-09 to almost $10,000 in 2012-13. During the same period, wealthier students at those schools saw their average net price go from about $18,000 to $21,000, a 16% increase. The figures have been adjusted for inflation.

At the University of Virginia, for instance, the poorest students saw their net price climb $4,313 over that period, compared to $2,687 for students in the top earning bracket. Despite UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s White House pledge to help poor families afford the price of college, from the start of the economic downturn through last year, the university raised the net price for its very poorest students by 69%, more than three times faster than for wealthier students, the federal figures show. Even after the January summit, beginning with the class that entered this fall, the public university dropped a policy of meeting full need for the lowest-income students without requiring them to take out loans, and now asks in-state families to borrow up to $14,000 over four years and out-of-state families up to $28,000.

Cuts in state allocations for higher education have also reduced the money available for financial aid for low-income students. G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas, said at the White House summit that providing educational opportunities to disadvantaged students “is part of our heritage.” Yet the public university raised its net price for the poorest families by 9% while lowering it 6% for wealthier ones between 2008-09 and 2012-13. The lopsided changes in cost there came even before the Arkansas State Lottery Scholarship was cut last year by more than 50%, says university spokeswoman Laura Jacobs, threatening to reduce even more funding for low-income students.

Universities “are giving lots of merit aid to kids who don’t need it,” and less financial aid to those who do, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank The Century Foundation. “There are powerful incentives for universities to avoid admitting and enrolling low-income students. The way that universities compete is on prestige and on the U.S.News & World Report rankings, and you get no credit for having a generous financial aid program that brings in more low-income students.”

No Magic Number

A UVA spokesman says Mr. Jefferson’s Capital Ball is run by an independent foundation of alumni and other supporters, not by the university itself. He also says the elimination of the no-loan policy for low-income students was unavoidable because the cost of assisting them exclusively with grants had nearly doubled since 2008. “UVA has committed to providing the necessary need but also needs to ensure that the program is sustainable,” the spokesman, McGregor McCance, says. Requiring all students to borrow is projected to save the university more than $10 million through 2018.

Heated protests over the changes, however, brought attention to the fact that, even as it was cutting the cost of providing financial aid to its poorest students, UVA was spending $12 million on a new squash facility and increasing its marketing budget by $18 million annually. Since then, a member of the Board of Visitors, Blue Ridge Capital president John Griffin, has pledged $4 million for scholarships for high-achieving low-income students and to seed an endowment to provide financial aid for top low-income undergraduates.

Other universities and colleges that were represented at the White House summit say their net prices for low-income students appeared to be increasing more quickly than they really have because they use different formulas than the federal government does to calculate whether or not a student has financial need. For example, while the government takes into account only the income of the custodial parent in the case of a divorce, these colleges also factor in the income of the parent who does not live at home, and often the value of real estate and other holdings. This means they do not necessarily regard as low income the same students the federal government does, and may not provide them with much financial aid.

That’s one reason Claremont McKenna College says it appears to have more than doubled its net price for its poorest students—10 times as fast as for their richer classmates—in spite of also signing the White House pledge, spokesman Max Benavidez says. “Moving from one formula in reporting aid to another completely different methodological formula may account for the misimpression of a large increase,” Benavidez says, though he would not provide the formula the college uses.

Oberlin, another White House-pledge college that uses its own formula to calculate need, did provide specifics. While federal figures show it doubled the net price for its poorest students at a rate 10 times as fast as for the highest group, Oberlin’s own calculations—which include the earnings of both parents in cases of divorce, making fewer students qualify as low income than the federal method—show that the net price for the poorest students hardly budged in the last three years and fell in 2012-13, says Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions and financial aid.

Nor are seemingly wealthier families always necessarily able to afford tuition without help. Some may live in places with high costs of living, leaving them with less disposable income, or have children close in age who go to college at the same time.“You might be making $200,000 a year, but you just got divorced and that’s a factor and this is a factor and there are other factors,” says Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.Families that are not low-income but still need help paying for the growing cost of college can get forgotten in the discussion, says Patrick Leahy, president of Wilkes University. “There’s plenty of aid going to the $80,000 [earners] and below, but once you get to $80,000 it’s not like it’s some magic number and you can suddenly afford tuition,” he says.

Yet other universities and colleges at which the net price for low-income students has shot up faster than for higher-income ones conceded that financial aid based on merit, as opposed to need, is increasingly important to their bottom lines. “Tuition-driven schools like UVM must think holistically about the entire undergraduate population and use more merit aid than in the past,” says Enrique Corredera, spokesman for the public University of Vermont, another school that signed the White House pledge but has more than doubled the annual net price for its poorest students, from $4,500 in 2008-09 to $11,000 in 2012-13. Meanwhile, the net price for students in top income group stayed flat at $21,000 a year. “We do this to attract academically talented students, who play a significant role in determining our ability to attract other students.”

Corredera says wealthier students, whose families can afford to pay at least some of the tuition, also subsidize financial aid for their poorer classmates. That subsidy is under attack in some states. The board of governors of North Carolina’s public universities, for example, is considering capping the proportion of tuition revenue that could be applied toward financial aid for low-income students, arguing that more affluent students shouldn’t be forced to cover the costs of their less affluent classmates. Iowa has already stopped its universities from using any of their in-state residents’ tuition toward financial aid.

“It’s politically popular to invest a lot of state money in merit-based aid. It’s very appealing to the middle class,” says Michael McLendon, a professor of higher-education policy at Southern Methodist University. “It’s not helpful for boosting higher-education access or completion for the poorest kids.”

There’s at least one glimmer of promise for critics of current aid practices. As the heat on this matter is being turned up, states, on average, slightly increased the share of financial aid they allocated for low-income students, as opposed to other students, in 2012-13, the latest year for which that figure is available, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs. On the other hand, the inflation-adjusted amount of total aid actually declined.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, in collaboration with the Dallas Morning News and the Education Writers Association.

 Chart College Tuition
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TIME Education

University of California System Approves Steep Tuition Hike

CA: UC Berkeley Students Rally Against Tuition Fee Hikes
Students rallied to demonstrate against the university's plan to increase tuition fees over the next five years at the University of California, Berkeley campus on Nov. 18, 2014, in Berkeley, Calif. Alex Milan Tracy—Sipa USA

Students are being asked to pay more as the state reduces its funding

Tuition at University of California schools could rise by as much as 28% by 2019 under a plan approved Thursday.

The 14-7 vote by the system’s regent board pitted top state officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, against those who run the UC’s 10-campus system, including its president, Janet Napolitano.

Students at UC campuses protested the proposed tuition hike ahead of the decision. Students at the University of California, Berkeley staged an all-night sit-in and students on hand for the vote itself, which took place in San Francisco, shouted their protests inside the meeting room and clashed with police outside.

Tuition at UC campuses has more than tripled since 2001, even without the increase just approved. Students and their families have shouldered more of the financial burden of attending UC schools in recent years, as the state has cut back the share of overall expenses it covers. The economic downturn accelerated this trend in California and at public universities and colleges across the country. Napolitano, who conceived and proposed the tuition hike plan, said increases could be scaled back before they go into effect if the state provides more direct funding for the UC system. Negotiations between Napolitano and state officials over how to fund UC will now begin in earnest.

Brown, who was reelected by a wide margin earlier this month, criticized the tuition hike plan and had asked Napolitano and other UC regents to further study how costs could be cut within the system in lieu of raising tuition. Awarding degrees in three years instead of the standard four and more online courses were among the ideas Brown wanted to see considered.

In-state tuition and fees at the University of California is $12,192, compared to a national average of $8,893 for all public colleges, according to the College Board. The cost of attending four-year colleges in the second-tier California State University system is below the national average. Napolitano has said the UC system needs to increase funding to cover pension and faculty costs, increase enrollment and maintain its world-class reputation. More than half of all UC students pay no tuition because their costs are coverage by public and private grants distributed based on income.

TIME Education

What California’s College Tuition Hike Says About the Future of Higher Education

CA: UC Berkeley Students Rally Against Tuition Fee Hikes
Students rallied to demonstrate against the university's plan to increase tuition fees over the next five years at the University of California, Berkeley campus on Nov. 18, 2014, in Berkeley, Calif. Alex Milan Tracy—Sipa USA

As state funding dwindles, students at public universities are being asked to pick up more of the tab

When does a public university system become one in name only? That’s the question facing California as officials in charge of the state’s prestigious, but financially-struggling university system clash over how to keep it afloat.

On Nov. 20, the regents that control the University of California system will vote on a proposal to increase tuition at its 10 campuses by as much as 5% a year for the next five years. This year’s tuition and fees for in-state students is $12,192, which could rise to $15,564 by the 2019-20 school year under the proposal. The plan was conceived and put forward by Janet Napolitano, who took over the UC system in 2013.

The fight over the tuition increase pits Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and federal homeland security chief, against Governor Jerry Brown, a popular figure in the state who was just re-elected with a sizable mandate. Brown has said he opposes increasing tuition, and would restore some state funding cut during the recession only if it stays flat. Brown is a regent and is among a handful of those on the board who have already indicated they will reject Napolitano’s proposal.

“There is a game of chicken,” says Hans Johnson, a higher education expert at the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California. “It’s not clear to me at all how it’s going to turn out.”

Underlying the clash of big personalities is a philosophical debate about the changing funding models for public universities. In 1960, California created a lofty master plan that said higher education should be free or very low-cost for residents. “We’ve moved away from that pretty dramatically,” says Johnson. “It’s almost traumatic for California to think about it.” In recent decades, the state has decreased the share of overall public higher education costs it pays for and the system has become increasingly dependent on student contributions, among other sources, for the difference. In the 2001-02 academic year, in-state tuition and fees for UC campuses was $3,429, about one-third of the cost today. Similar trends have played out in state university systems elsewhere as well.

The recession accelerated public schools’ reliance on private money. At UC, the system receives some $460 million less per year in state funds than it did in the 2007-08 school year.

“As a political matter, state officials have made the judgment they don’t want to pay for higher education for our citizens,” says David Plank, an economist at Policy Analysis for California Education, a non-partisan research center. “What were once public universities are now private universities that receive some subsidy from the states.”

Napolitano says that if UC is to remain a world-class educational and research institution, it needs more money, no matter the source. And she says students and families will need to fill the gap left by the state. The proposed tuition increase would affect only around half of the student body. Thanks to income-based federal and state grants, about 55% of UC students pay no tuition.

Gavin Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor, has said he and Brown were blind-sided by the tuition increase proposal. The governor’s office has said Napolitano’s plan could void a plan Brown has endorsed to increase state funding 4 percent per year if tuition stays flat. Napolitano has said she never made a deal and if was one was struck before she took charge, she hasn’t found any record of it. “It was unilateral. It wasn’t anything we agreed to,” says Steve Montiel, a spokesman for Napolitano.

On the eve of today’s meeting of the regents planning board, the speaker of the California state assembly reportedly proposed directing $50 million in additional state general funds to UC to stave off increased costs for students. The proposal followed student protests at at least two UC campuses this week.

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