In the Rearview Mirror: 2009

Another year has ended in higher education, and fortunately, there were no catastrophes as in years past: no student massacres and no massive plummeting of endowments, for example. But there were big changes politically and economically, with a new administration in D.C. (also here in North Carolina) and with the recession settling in for a long spell. And big changes in politics mean big changes in policy. There were a whole lot of other shifts, trends and cross-currents as well. So the Pope Center staff decided to try to get a handle on what really happened in higher education this year, with each of us stating what we consider to be the top two stories, events, or trends of 2009.

As always, Jane Shaw emphasized the big picture by listing a couple of long-term trends—declining graduation rates and the emergence of for profit-schools. George Leef has long championed the idea that education is oversold—and he took issue with the Obama administration’s plans to pump up attendance. He also recalled what was perhaps the year’s worst incident of political correctness run amok. Jenna Ashley Robinson, as our resident financial aid and tuition guru, cited a couple of major policy changes involving financial aid and tuition. Jay Schalin, who keeps his eye on the University of North Carolina system, offered a couple of stories about people behaving badly on UNC campuses, while first-year man David Koon took the eclectic approach—one story on the UNC budget and another on the fading fortunes of football as a campus mainstay.

Jane Shaw

The Diploma Debacle
College graduation rates have been declining for decades. Today, fewer than 60 percent of the nation’s college students graduate within six years. Some colleges’ graduation rates are as low as 19 percent (Northeastern Illinois University, for example) or 25 percent (Touro College). Such figures are widely deplored: students drop out without markedly improving their skills, and the heavy reliance on college loans leaves students high and dry when they forfeit their degree. The American Enterprise Institute urges students to avoid schools with low rates. In North Carolina, the public university system is planning to tie enrollment funds to graduation rates—schools with low graduation (and retention) rates will not be allowed to expand enrollment.

Greed is Gaining
Proprietary colleges still get little respect in many circles—but they continued to emerge as a viable option in higher education in 2009. They now serve nearly ten percent of all college students, and are no longer ignored in the mainstream higher education media. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a favorable profile of the founder of the University of Phoenix. The Associated Press, less friendly, reported that for-profits benefit from “surging proportions of both low-income students and the recently boosted government money that follows them,” noting that five for-profit schools received more than $1 billion in Pell grants. That is true—but these schools argue that they are providing a low-cost, high quality education to a part of the population that other schools ignore. The Department of Education issued a controversial report endorsing the value of online teaching (the key tool of for-profits), concluding that online teaching is better than face-to-face contact.

George Leef

The “You Want Fries With That?” Degree
President Barack Obama surprised no one in higher education in his first big speech to Congress last February. He made it clear that he’s a firm believer in the conventional wisdom, namely that the country badly needs to put more young people through college. He set a goal of leading the world in the percentage of citizens who have college degrees by 2020. In trying to show that the labor force needs far more college-educated workers, he played fast and loose with statistics on anticipated job creation. The problem is that the labor market is already glutted with people holding college credentials but little in the way of skill. And more observers of higher education are taking note of the need to reassess the conventional wisdom.

Teacher, Leave those Kids Alone
One of the main points of contention between the leftist education establishment in the U.S. and its critics is whether higher education is being used to promote liberal views. That idea is often derided as mere conservative propaganda (even though many liberals agree that the academy is one-sided). The argument for the existence of bias became a lot stronger, however, when the news got out that the University of Minnesota’s education school was using what amounted to a political litmus test: unless students accepted a host of fevered notions about white privilege, socio-economic oppression and so forth, they wouldn’t be deemed acceptable candidates for teaching. The education school’s program made it abundantly clear that the administration’s main concern was shaping future teacher’s minds to ensure politically correct thinking – not teaching them how to teach children.

In response to the uproar, Minnesota’s education school has backed off from this ham-fisted attempt to enforce political correctness, at least for the time being. Sunlight can be a powerful disinfectant.

Jenna Ashley Robinson

We’re From the Government, and We’re Here to Help (With Your Financial Aid)
The U.S. House of Representatives and the Obama administration proposed some big changes for student borrowers this year with the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. If passed, the bill will eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, through which students can borrow money at subsidized rates from private lenders. All future subsidized lending would be in the form of direct loans from the government. Proponents of the president’s plan claim it will save money and insulate students from market fluctuations and high interest rates. Opponents of the bill doubt proponents’ estimates of its cost and say it will create a government monopoly in student loans by crowding out all private lending. The Senate will consider the bill in 2010.

In addition to changing the way students borrow money, the bill will also increase the maximum annual Pell Grant scholarship to $5,550 in 2010 and to $6,900 by 2019.

California Dreamin’ in the New Millenium
Facing a $26 billion budget deficit, California opted to increase undergraduate fees (the equivalent of tuition) by 32 percent for the University of California system. Because of this action, protests erupted at several campuses, with students occupying buildings at Santa Cruz and Berkeley. At Berkeley, hundreds of students chanted slogans like: “Fee hike! We strike!” At U.C.L.A., 14 demonstrators were arrested for disrupting the Regents meeting. Students and other critics of the increase claim that it will have a significant negative effect on minority and low-income students, effectively pricing them out of UC schools. Supporters of the policy point out that, even with the large tuition increase, UC fees are well below those of many other prestigious flagship public universities. The first tuition hike, which takes effect in January, will raise undergraduate tuition to $8,373. The second hike kicks in next fall, raising tuition to $10,302.

Jay Schalin

Hire Education
Perhaps the biggest story in all of North Carolina this year, not just in higher education, was the multiple scandals surrounding former governor Mike Easley. One of the biggest of those scandals centered on his wife Mary Easley’s sweetheart job at N.C. State University, which first became public in 2008. When the dust finally cleared in June of 2009, Mary Easley was gone, N.C. State chancellor James Oblinger was gone, provost Larry Nielsen was gone, and the reputation of the entire university system was tarnished.

The Mary Easley affair also kicked off a new vigilance by the mainstream media concerning the previously untouchable UNC system. Both the Raleigh News and Observer and the Asheville Citizen Times followed with exposes about the public universities’ slack regard for fair and sensible hiring procedures.

That 60s Show
For nearly six months, left-wing radical groups at UNC-Chapel Hill clashed with a new student organization, Youth for Western Civilization, in what became an affirmation of the right of campus conservatives to exercise their free speech. It began with the radicals, led by the Students for a Democratic Society, driving former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo from his speaker’s podium in a wild protest that featured police using pepper spray, a broken window, and chanted obscenities. The university clamped down on protestors at subsequent Youth for Western Civilization events, arresting six protestors at a speech by former U.S. Congressman Virgil Goode. During this period, YWC lost two faculty advisors and one president, but the protests eventually fizzled due to heightened security measures and the overwhelming consensus that the protestors were behaving badly by denying others the right to express their views.

David Koon

Downsizing the Football Factory
Football teams were once regarded as untouchable on college campuses. This year, however, three universities across the nation terminated their programs. Hofstra, Northeastern, and Western Washington universities all decided that investing the millions of dollars necessary to improve their struggling programs (in addition to the millions they were already spending) simply wasn’t worth it. The move generated anger, confusion, and disappointment among team supporters. But university officials at each school claimed that their decision to end the program was about investing more in academics and not about the number of interceptions thrown.

Despite a perception that football is a revenue-producing sport, most programs are financial drains on their universities’ coffers (a few big time programs, such as Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Southern California, are the exception). Even so, UNC-Charlotte has announced that they will continue the establishment of a football program on its campus—a move the Pope Center criticized here.

Nickel-Squeezing 101
Responding to the pressures of the economic recession, the UNC system began to show some fiscal restraint this year. The North Carolina General Assembly gave the state’s public universities roughly 10.6 percent less for operating expenses than in the fiscal year’s projected budget. Though that amount was actually 0.9 percent more than the budget approved by the legislature for fiscal year 2008-9, it represents an abrupt change from recent years, when state appropriations to the UNC system soared.

Campuses in the UNC system attempted to do more with less. For example, many vacant faculty and staff positions were not filled across the 17 campuses and centers in the UNC system closed, merged, or were forced to find alternate avenues of funding after the state dollars dried up.