Great Expectations: The Year 2013

Big things were anticipated for higher education reform in 2013—but the sizzle turned to fizzle in many cases. Landmark court decisions got pushed off for another year, bubbles didn’t quite burst, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) did not take over vast swaths of the higher education landscape, and, in Texas, reformers got spanked by establishment opponents. In North Carolina, the first entirely Republican state government (both houses of the legislature and the governor) in over a century made sweeping changes to every part of the state government, save one: the higher education system.

But sometimes it is during the supposedly quiet periods when the foundations are being laid for bigger changes. For instance, it is commonly accepted in mainstream circles that the 1950s were a quiet, stagnant period during which lifestyles and attitudes remained stuck in the past, as opposed to the supposedly vibrant, world-changing 1960s. Yet, so much of what occurred in the 1960s was foreshadowed by events in the 1950s: the Civil Rights movement really took off with the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the 1960s Peace Movement was really the next generation of the 1950s “Ban the Bomb” movement, the 1960s counterculture evolved from the 1950s Beat movement, the 1957 “Howl” obscenity trial presaged the Berkeley Free Speech movement, and so on.

There is considerable possibility that 2013’s seemingly minor events and even non-events will lead to big changes in the future. Each of the Pope Center’s staff offer a couple of events or trends that they think may be of future import below:

Jane Shaw: No More Rewards for Meaningless Credentials

The North Carolina legislature has eliminated the 10 percent pay increase that K-12 teachers previously received for getting a master’s degree in a step toward implementing merit pay. North Carolina, which now pays about an additional $180 million a year for master’s degree recipients, is believed to be the first state in the country to make this change. If special-interest pressure doesn’t overturn it, this action could have major consequences for the education of children. And the consequences will be good.

Extra pay for a master’s degree violates the principle that teachers (like other employees) should get more pay when they do a good job, not simply because they have another credential. That’s particularly the case with teachers’ master’s degrees because there’s doubt about the value of the credential. As Jesse Saffron wrote in an article for the Pope Center, numerous studies show that there is little or no correlation between an advanced degree and teaching effectiveness.

Furthermore, 90 percent of all master’s degrees received by K-12 teachers are in education, and education schools across the country have been under fire for neglecting how to teach the basics and permeating their courses (especially advanced courses) with social justice rhetoric.

Another potential result of the General Assembly’s change is to make education schools more competitive by eliminating their steady pipeline for master’s degrees. If those degrees improve the teacher’s ability to teach, they will survive. If not, they may not. Initial reports suggest that education schools in North Carolina are already seeing a reduction in master’s degree students. 

Jay Schalin: Accountability in Student Lending

One of the best higher education ideas of the last few years emerged from obscurity in 2013 to take its place in the financial aid dialogue. The so-called “skin in the game” lending model, if adopted, will make schools become co-signers for a portion of a student’s federal loans. By doing so, it ends the incentive for colleges and universities to encourage students with little chance of graduation to take out large loans to pay tuition. Instead, it motivates schools to use more discretion in admissions and financial aid policies, since they have a vested interest in students being able to improve their skills, complete school, and get good jobs so that they can pay back the loans. If the schools do not moderate their current practices accordingly, they will be forced to repay the loans of defaulting former students.

Student loan default rates have been soaring in recent years. The most recent two-year default rate—which applies to borrowers who began repaying loans from October 1, 2010, to September 30, 2011—is 10 percent, the highest in nearly two decades. It was up from 9.1 percent among the previous year. The three-year rate rose from 13.5 percent to 14.7 percent.

The “skin in the game” model is a viable solution to the problem.  Its origin is attributed to Alex Pollock, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

George Leef: Dismantling Diversity

In the Supreme Court’s most important education decision of the year, Fisher v. Texas, the justices threw a constitutional wrench into the gears of the “diversity” movement. The case arose in the typical fashion—Abigail Fisher, a white student who had applied to the University of Texas (i.e., the flagship campus in Austin) in 2008, was rejected while other students who had lower grades and scores were accepted because they were of “minority” backgrounds.

Texas defended against Fisher’s suit with the standard set of pro-diversity arguments that prevailed when the Court last took up racial preferences in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case. In Grutter, the decision stated that when courts consider public university policies that favor some people over others merely because of their race, they must use “strict scrutiny” in judging whether there are other ways of achieving the supposed educational benefits of a more diverse student body than preferences for a few groups. But then the Court simply winked at the University of Michigan and said that it would “defer” to its expertise and therefore did not really scrutinize its policy at all.

In Fisher, the majority held that when the lower court sided with the University of Texas, it had not done anything approaching strict scrutiny. In other words, the Supreme Court said, “Follow what we said, not what we did.” The case was remanded to the lower court to be reheard, this time asking the University to demonstrate that there are educational benefits from diversity and that the only way to obtain them is through racial preferences in admissions.

The case is important because it suggests that racial preferences now face more likelihood of being declared unconstitutional.

Jenna Ashley Robinson: Due Process in Campus Courts

In August, North Carolina became the first state to guarantee public university students the right to an attorney in campus courts.

The law was first introduced to the North Carolina House on April 10 as the Students & Administration Equality (SAE) Act and was authored by Rep. John Bell (R).  

The Act was named in recognition of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at UNC Wilmington, which fought the administration’s decision to suspend the organization from campus. The president of the fraternity wrote an open letter to members of the NC General Assembly asking them to write a law prohibiting administrators from trampling on the rights of students.

Students may be tried in campus courts for theft, assault, rape and other felony crimes, without the victims pressing charges in criminal courts. Before the passage of SAE, this meant that a student falsely accused of a serious crime could be convicted by a simple majority of other students without legal representation or even a police investigation. And while student courts cannot sentence a defendant to jail, they can expel students from school and, at the very least, place a black mark on the student’s reputation (and college transcript).

The NC House overwhelmingly approved the Act in May. The Act, with slight alterations, was eventually included in the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which passed the legislature on July 26 and was signed by Governor McCrory in August.

Jesse Saffron: Common Sense Goes Prime Time

In high school, Mike Rowe saw a poster on his guidance counselor’s wall featuring the phrase “Work Smart Not Hard.” Above “Work Smart” was a picture of a smiling college graduate holding a diploma, and above “Not Hard” was a picture of a blue-collar worker with greasy overalls and a look of fatigue. Rowe, now famous for hosting the Discovery Channel’s hit show Dirty Jobs, was unnerved by the poster’s implications, which he believes demeaned skilled trades and manual workers.

“Consider the reality of today’s job market. We have a massive skills gap. Even with record unemployment, millions of skilled jobs are unfilled because no one is trained or willing to do them,” writes Mr. Rowe on his new website, Profoundly Disconnected. The website, designed to smash conventional wisdom regarding the benefits of four-year degrees, is an offshoot of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation. That foundation provides privately funded scholarships for individuals interested in trade schools and apprenticeship programs.

Rowe’s fame and passion for these issues have allowed him to reach a broad audience that might not otherwise be aware of the depth of problems like credential inflation and mounting student loan debt. The chattering class is paying attention, too. Glenn Beck, Bill Maher and Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine have recently interviewed the celebrity TV host. This is a welcomed development. Sometimes, it seems as if higher education commentators who share Rowe’s sentiments are preaching to a narrow audience of adult intellectuals. Perhaps with Rowe’s help, that audience will grow to include those who most need to hear his message: the great mass of young people choosing their paths beyond high school.

George Leef: Law School Losses

Sometimes people react quickly to changing news about a product or service (one bad review can kill a movie or play) and sometimes they react very slowly. A good example of the latter is the way that law school enrollments remained strong long after the news started coming out that many law school graduates don’t find jobs in the legal profession and don’t earn the money they need to cover their loans.

But 2013 seems to mark a turning point. At quite a few law schools, enrollments have plummeted, apparently on the spreading information that getting a law degree is, for many people, a terrible waste of time and money.

As one would expect, the fall in enrollments is most pronounced at non-elite law schools, while the most prestigious ones are not experiencing much of a drop. Pepperdine University law professor Paul Caron surveyed the law schools in California in this post. Top schools like UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley were down only marginally (5 percent and 14 percent), but lesser-known schools such as UC-Davis (25 percent) and Golden Gate University (53 percent), the enrollment declines were striking.

Perhaps the most startling nosedive was at the University of Iowa law school. Back in 2011, 550 students entered; this year, only 95.

For many years, American law schools have been graduating substantially more people than the legal profession has jobs for, and yet law school enrollments remained strong, apparently because the conventional wisdom that a law degree was a “good investment” that would “open many doors” blocked out the dismal reality that for many students, it’s a terrible investment that opens few doors that are worth opening.

Typical of the derision now heaped on the old thinking about law school is this piece, in which law school is derided as a terrible waste of time and money.

The higher education bubble is deflating, and it appears that for law school, it has burst.

Jesse Saffron: Protecting Personal Property Rights of Players?

Should college athletes be compensated when their images, names or likenesses are used for video games, television broadcasts and jersey sales? For Ed O’Bannon, the lead plaintiff in an ongoing, monumental class action against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the answer is “yes.”

O’Bannon is a former winner of multiple college “player of the year” awards, received in 1995 after he led UCLA to the NCAA championship. He never quite reaped his anticipated monetary rewards as a professional, lasting only two years in the NBA.

In 2009, O’Bannon sued the NCAA, claiming that the Association’s amateurism policies had illegally restrained former college athletes from earning just compensation for use of their persons. A pivotal moment in the case came when O’Bannon added current and future college athletes to the proposed class of plaintiffs, a move heavily protested by the defendant NCAA, as it opened the Association up to massive liability. This year, the case picked up steam when the judge partially certified O’Bannon’s proposed class (she ruled that current and future players could sue as a class, but that former players would have to sue separately). A trial date has been scheduled for next summer, although the parties could settle before then.

Some college athletics legal gurus, like Michael McCann, believe that this case could bring about sweeping changes to NCAA rules and to the longstanding amateurism of college athletics. Right now, plaintiffs are demanding that the NCAA create a trust (for players to access upon graduation) consisting of 50 percent of the NCAA’s broadcasting revenues and one-third of licensing revenues. If O’Bannon’s suit is successful, it’s likely that college athletes will join players’ associations or unionize, much like professional athletes.

College athletes in revenue-generating sports like basketball and football create huge profits for the NCAA, television stations, conferences and individual schools. Revenue streams are in the billions. O’Bannon is seeking to divvy up this pie, and has spurred a national debate in the process.

Jenna Ashley Robinson: The Great Dorm Debate of 2013

Also in August, the UNC Board of Governors voted unanimously to outlaw gender-neutral housing on the system’s 16 campuses. 

The decision prevented UNC-Chapel Hill from offering gender-neutral housing options in the 2013-14 academic year. Gender-neutral housing options would have allowed students to share suites or campus apartments with other students regardless of how they identify with respect to gender. Most importantly, young men and women who are not related could room together. Four students had signed up for the program.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition, praised the Board for returning “sanity to the university housing environment.” 

She’s right. All too often, residence life programs are used to forward political agendas. As part of living on campus, students are stripped of their rights to say, display, and even think what they want. The Board’s decision is one small step in changing university housing back into a service instead of the political program it has become in recent years.

The Board’s decision preempted legislative action on the issue. “Our board felt it was important to maintain autonomy over housing policy,” said Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

Jay Schalin: The Entrepreneurial Spirit

2013 was a good year for innovative new educational institutions and concepts. Online ventures that came closer to fruition include:

  • The Minerva Project. For his online, 4-year startup, Internet entrepreneur Ben Nelson has big financial backing from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, involvement from big names in academia such as Larry Summers, Bob Kerrey, Roger Kornberg, and Stephen Kosslyn. The school will be future-focused, eschewing Great Books for the latest discoveries, and Nelson hopes it will to immediately break into the lofty ranks of top-ranked colleges and universities. It is on track to begin in the Fall of 2014.
  • Praxis. Conservative activist and entrepreneur Isaac Morehouse is building a 10-month alternative to a four-year education targeted at highly motivated high school graduates and others who want to get the minimum of  skills needed for a professional career quickly (with a little philosophy thrown in for good measure).  The main feature is a paid internship with entrepreneurial firms, with some free market-oriented instruction as well. The first cohort of 7 to 10 students will begin in February of 2014.
  • Libertas U. is an fledgling internet start-up with a traditional liberal arts curriculum that features some cutting edge technology.  It holds virtual lectures and seminars using “avatars” representing individual students and teachers that can move and speak online just as real students and teachers do in classrooms. Libertas’s leadership team includes noted conservative scholars Roger Scruton and Thomas Lindsay, and it is opening its virtual doors at the start of 2014. 

Competency-based education got a big push with the accreditation of Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America” program. It is the first degree program that permits students to gain credentials by proving “competence” in specific skills or bodies of knowledge, according to their own schedules, rather than taking credit-hour courses that last a set amount of time.

Jane Shaw: All Eyes on Texas

University reformers are carefully watching the outcome of proceedings at the Texas House of Representatives. A legislative committee is considering the impeachment of a University of Texas regent because he made too many public records requests about top administrators at the system’s flagship school at Austin.

That’s the public reason, anyway. Perhaps more to the point, regent Wallace L. Hall Jr. discovered—and revealed—that the law school dean at the University of Texas at Austin had received a $500,000 “forgivable loan” through the law school’s foundation and that such loans were being used, surreptitiously, to entice faculty to the law schools. Hall wanted to find out whether the UT-A president, Bill Powers, knew about them (and possibly even instigated them when he was dean—that’s part of the reason for the public records searches).

Hall is also looking into evidence that Texas politicians obtained special admissions considerations for their children. All in all, Hall asked for 800,000 pages of public records, according to the university. A committee of the regents’ backed him up by telling the president not to destroy emails.

For the past five years, Texas has been actively trying to restore the regents’ authority, which had declined over the years as administrators and faculty took more and more control. The goal of the regents, supported by Governor Rick Perry, has been to make higher education in Texas more transparent and accountable. But they didn’t really count on the legislature where legislators may be more focused more on their own interests than those of the Texas taxpayer.

Many badly needed reforms in higher education are not going to happen without regents or trustees leading the way. Unfortunately, just as in Texas, too many “good old boy” networks are preventing that from happening.