Public universities move away from supporting poor students

State funding for American public universities has been declining for a generation.  The New York Times catches on updates us on the latest data.

David Leonhardt (Twitter) cites the Times’ recent scorecard of higher education and poor people’s access to it, reminding us that “most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically.”  

At the public colleges in the index, the average share of last year’s freshman class receiving Pell grants — which means they typically come from the bottom half of the income distribution — fell to 21.8 percent, from 24.3 percent in 2011-12. Campuses with declining economic diversity include the Universities of Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin, as well as Binghamton, Ohio State and Rutgers.

By comparison, the Pell share has recently held roughly constant at top private colleges, around 16 percent.

Leading the shift away from poor folks are University of California system campuses, like UCSD:

On the San Diego campus five years ago, 46 percent of freshmen received Pell grants. Last year, the share had dropped to 26 percent.

enrollment of Pell awardees_2015-2017

Be sure to scroll halfway down the article for the infographic of individual US states and their changing support since 2009.  It’s too big and rich to copy over here.

One crucial effect of this campus shift from encouraging poor people to rich folks is social:

most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically. Many public universities have responded by enrolling fewer poor and middle-class students — and replacing them with affluent students who can afford the tuition.

 I’ve seen this at many colleges and universities.  Administrators and faculty have described the transition, and, to their credit, many agonize over it.  It’s heartbreaking to hear deans and professors who tell me about their decision to go into education to serve the underserved, and how that opportunity is shrinking.

Readers know I keep hammering the theme of income inequality and its impacts on higher education.  This is one dimension of that.

There are, alas, a whole strong of problems with Leonhardt’s account.  He doesn’t cite the major research on this topic, neither Chris Newfeld’s important books (most recently) nor Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price (our reading).  Instead he refers to a recent book on Californian higher ed as a unique case, and focuses a chunk of his article on that state’s arguably anomalous situation.*

And his suggested solutions (kudos for offering some) are iffy.  For example, Leonhardt suggests that “universities… [scour] their budgets, looking for spending that’s less important to their mission than economic diversity and meritocracy are… [including] spiffy recreation centers, expensive sports teams, bureaucratic bloat.”  Each of these has problems.

“spiffy recreation centers” – those can be enormously expensive.  However, what proportion of campuses actually haven’t spent much on these?  Moreover, the amenities arms race persists because no school wants to disarm and risk losing students at a time when, as I keep reminding everyone, enrollments are down and financial pressures are high.

“expensive sports teams” – great idea.  Political suicide at most campuses.

“bureaucratic bloat” – Leonhardt links to an interesting example, again from California.  But he misses the point that a lot of “bureaucratic bloat” actually has good causes: expanded technology staff as those needs have exploded; many student support staff, as student needs soar and competition heats up; staff to meet regulatory needs; staff to help with fundraising as public support declines.

The author also recommends that universities commit queen sacrifices.  Among his list of money-snarfing “suspects” are “struggling academic programs”.  Leonhardt doesn’t specify which ones, nor describe how to go about this without riffing faculty members, not to mention reducing student access to curricula and career paths.

He also thinks that “[t]his country should also be investing more of its resources in education.”  A noble idea, but, as with sports, one that utterly lacks political traction.

Speaking of politics, I’m intrigued by how the article doesn’t mention party politics.  That makes a quiet sense, perhaps, as both Republicans and Democrats defund higher ed with roughly parallel enthusiasm (check the national chart and compare red versus blue states). It also doesn’t describe policy or ideological reasons for the funding shift.  I’d mention neoliberalism and demographics are two reasons, but think the New York Times is uncomfortable mentioning the former, and is awkward with the latter.

Moreover, there just isn’t much political interest in refunding public higher ed.  To begin with, the feds, well.  More importantly, state politicians see competing interests, and many have stronger political power, like pensions (retirees donate and vote more than anyone else), health care (cf recent political turmoil), the penal system (cf recent crime panic), and other services (think of road repair in northern states, for example). Those competing interests aren’t going away – indeed, demographics and policy suggests pensions and health care will become ever more demanding, financially and politically. Higher ed?  Not so much.

So is sum we have a flawed account wrapped around useful data, identifying a powerful trend everyone interested in higher ed needs to have been talking about yesterday.

What should we do?

*The book is called The California Idea, and seems to use that phrase to describe that state’s commitment to public support for broad access to higher education.  But doesn’t that really stem from the Wisconsin Idea, which predates it?  What happened to Wisconsin in this article, dropped because it’s flyover country, or due to that state’s new status as a red state, unlike Ca.?  I suspect the former, as the Times’ own data shows North Dakota and Wyoming as exceptions to the rule, but the text never mentions them:

High plains states and higher ed funding

Yellow columns represent spending reductions, while gray show increases.

Posted in research topics, trends, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Higher education enrollment declined in 2017. Again.

The total number of students enrolled in American high education declined in 2017.


I’ve been tracking this trend of steadily, unbroken enrollment decline since 2013.  But before I grimly crow about that, let’s look at the details.

The data (pdf) comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  They see “overall postsecondary enrollments decreas[ing] 1.5 percent from the previous spring [2016].”  In spring 2017 18,071,004 students took classes on American campuses; compare that with 19,619,773 enrolled back in 2014. That’s a drop of 1,548,769 students, or about 7.9%.  As Inside Higher Ed puts it, “national college enrollments have continued their multiyear decline”.

If we break down “overall” into sectors, we get this:

enrollment 2014-2017

For-profits continue to hemorrhage students.  Community colleges also continue to shed numbers.  Private and public four-year institutions are just on either side of a plateau.

Academic program enrollment data is fascinating, too:

enrollment by program 2016-2017

Business continues to rule enrollment.  Health care and allied health are huge, if ticking down a bit.  I’m not sure what “liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities” means; it does sound like “a lot of undeclared undergraduates plus some interdisciplinary majors”, but I could be wrong.

Two-year campuses show similar patterns:

enrollment by program 2 years

What does all of this mean?

Let me turn to some themes I’ve been attaching to this trend over the past few years.

The for-profit sector is still crashing for various reasons, including the impact of Obama-era regulation and bad press.   They *could* rebound if the Trump administration supports them actively. (For more information about this segment of higher ed, check out our ongoing reading of Cottom’s Lower Ed.)

Here’s a thought.  Why aren’t most for-profit students heading to other higher ed sectors?

Community colleges are continuing to lose students. Many explain this as due to CCs’ countercyclical nature, where they fill up during recessions and shrink during growth.  However, today’s economic “growth” is very weak.

Public (nominally state-supported) colleges and universities are losing students: “Taken as a whole, public sector enrollments (two-year and four-year combined) declined by 0.9 percent this spring.”  This may help explain why per-student support numbers rose last year – there are fewer students per.

Gender balance continues to tilt female, as 10,352,322 women took classes as compared with 7,718,682 men.

Age Adult learners are dropping.  Is this because of for-profits, or…?

Academic programs We should expect resources and political support to continue heading towards business and health care.

State support Will declining number encourage state legislatures to direct more funding to public higher ed?  Or will they interpret the numbers to indicate declining demand, and downgrade monetary support?

Businesses impacted Recall that Pearson lost money, then shed staff, in part because of declining student enrollment.  Are other businesses heading into trouble?

At a strategic level, recall that higher education boomed in student numbers for the past generation.  From the 1980s through 2013, we sent more and more students to college, as we expected the manufacturing economy to transition into a knowledge one, and as the BA/BS became the new high school diploma.  Our economic models were built on this assumption of steady growth.  That’s how we powered expanding amenities, growing programs, and increasing the numbers of staff and faculty. Now that higher ed is, at best, at a steady state, if not shrinking, these business models no longer apply.  What do we do now?

One side effect of this continued development is increased inter-institutional competition.  The same number of colleges and universities are fighting for a shrinking number of students. Collaboration is going to be even harder to support.

What next?


Posted in trends | 3 Comments

Carving up the internet in May 2017

Just how divided and controlled will the internet become?

Balkanika_emanningbxI’ve been tracking the trend of internet balkanization for several years.  Many nations have been attempting to carve up internet access in various ways, from local filters to ISP arrangements and China’s Golden Shield.  New political developments during the past few weeks pushed this trend to new levels of potential impact.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched a process to undo net neutrality.  This, despite a flood of comments urging the Commission not to do so.

Many people have weighed in, like Peter Suber.  John Oliver is still on the case: (don’t forget gofccyourself):

So Americans and anyone else connecting through US networks might end up with a multi-tiered internet, blocked out by political connections and favorites.

Meanwhile, last month the Turkish government blocked that country’s access to Wikipedia.  Several weeks ago the block was upheld by a national court.

Turkey’s telecommunications watchdog said last week that access to Wikipedia had been blocked, citing a law allowing it to ban access to websites deemed a threat to national security.

The block on the site was prompted by two Wikipedia entries accusing Turkey of links to Islamist militant groups, local media have reported. The communications ministry has said Wikipedia was attempting to run a “smear campaign” against the country, saying some articles purported that Ankara was coordinating with militant groups.

At about the same time the British prime minister, running for re-election, published a campaign manifesto calling for greater control of the internet.  That means ramping up government control over access and content, using the language of safety.  “A DIGITAL CHARTER … we will make Britain the safest place in the world to be online.”
Balkan mountains_jeanpierrecauchon - "Long before that, crashing tectonic plates created most impressive ridges along the 400-mile-long Dinaric Alps as they laced the edge of the eastern Adriatic with craggy islands and shores. Natural barriers such as this have helped historically kept the area "Balkanized" into separate states not known for getting along. Bosnia in particular has trouble getting to the sea."

In harnessing the digital revolution, we must take steps to protect the vulnerable and give people confidence to use the internet without fear of abuse, criminality or exposure to horrific content. Our starting point is that online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline. It should be as unacceptable to bully online as it is in the playground, as difficult to groom a young child on the internet as it is in a community, as hard for children to access violent and degrading pornography online as it is in the high street, and as difficult to commit a crime digitally as it is physically…

In addition, we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.

This is about an open statement of control and access control as bureaucrats can emit.

May’s manifesto also describes using state power to push for digital companies to reshape and restrict content and access:

We will work with industry to introduce new protections for minors, from images of pornography, violence, and other age-inappropriate content not just on social media but in app stores and content sites as well. We will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm. We will make clear the responsibility of platforms to enable the reporting of inappropriate, bullying, harmful or illegal content, with take-down on a comply-or-explain basis.

We will continue to push the internet companies to deliver on their commitments to develop technical tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda…

So three countries, including the world’s hyperpower, are pushing to carve up what remains of the open internet.  Their governments are aggregating more power to themselves to directly shape user access, block content, and mobilize local businesses to expand that mission.

What can we learn from these movements, looking to the future?

  • Conservatives (Britain’s Tories, America’s GOP, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party) seem especially interested in internet restriction, citing a mixture of national power, law and order, respect, and safety.  They can even describe their actions as pro-liberty. Will their labor/left/liberal opponents fight them on this topic, or will they support language of protecting vulnerable users? Or will non-traditional politics emerge, like more Pirate Parties and John Oliver followers?
  • Would-be carvers might not be above thuggish behavior.
  • ” ” ” can use terror attacks like yesterday’s to forward their cause.
  • Given how many governments are interested in balkanizing the internet, we should expect the human default experience of the digital world to be one of limited and/or biased access.  To answer this post’s opening question, “Just how divided and controlled will the internet become?”  Quite.

How should educators respond?

(photos by Elizabeth Manning and Jean-Pierre Cauchon)

Posted in technology, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Reading _Lower Ed_: The Beauty College and the Technical College

We continue our reading of Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (publisher; Amazon). Here we’ll discuss chapter two, “The Beauty College and the Technical College.”

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.

As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

Beauty College photo by kaex0r414, captioned "i did a test model for aroma therapy assessment."

“test model for aroma therapy assessment”

Chapter Two: The Beauty College and the Technical College

This chapter divides the for-profit sector into two branches, based on student circumstances and curriculum.

It begins by continuing the book’s autobiographical thread, describing the author’s experience as a trainer for a telecommunications company, then shifting to sales (not admissions!) for a for-profit beauty college.  Cottom places both of those entities in the economic context of the late 1990s/early 2000s, with rising financialization and rapidly advancing technology.

One key point: the beauty college carefully shapes its services to take advantage of its market’s gender, race, and class status, or “cumulative disadvantage”. (50)

Then Cottom contrasts the beauty college with a technical college, describing very different leaders and atmosphere.  The technical institution is more financialized, with a high pressure environment. “The Technical College spent more time telling me about regulations because it had been sued or censured many times for violating them.” (60)

The chapter’s second part analyzes and teases apart the differences between these two subsets of for-profit higher ed, while continuing to distinguish between for-profit and non-profit post-secondary education.  Many people (and employers) fail to distinguish between for-profit and non-profit schools (58).  For-profit institutional leaders tend to come from finance or business backgrounds with bachelor’s or master’s degrees, while PhDs from other fields usually leader non-profits (62-3).  For-profits are a more appealing choice for people struggling with the new economy’s labor market pressures than are non-profits (66).

Technical college sign by joybotYet for-profits are not a unitary sector.  Beauty colleges tend to be locally or regionally owned, and marketed more towards women of color, while technical colleges are national, Wall Street-traded chains, recruiting white men.  Beauty college students tend to be poorer and less academically credentialed than their technical peers (63).  Summing up by exemplars, and following Bowen and Bok’s river of education in life metaphor:

[O]ne river carries middle-class, white-collar workers to the MBA program at Capelle and the poor black mother of three who is close to maxing our her welfare eligibility to the cosmetology certificate at Empire Beauty School.  The Beauty School students and the Technical College students typically don’t share a social class, an income bracket, or the same kind of social and cultural capital.  All of our traditional means of thinking about those students as a single group break down. (65; emphases added)

The chapter concludes by pointing ahead to the rest of the book, indicating a focus on how people decide to attend these institutions.


  1. Does this chapter’s profile describe beauty and technical colleges in your area?
  2. How does online learning fit into this picture?  I’m thinking of the challenge of the time trap (66), and how online classes are more convenient than face to face ones.
  3. Can you think of similarly deep divides between non-profit higher education institutions?
  4. Cottom urges “more such research and data” on how the new economy shapes educational paths (66).  Can anyone recommend good examples?

Next Monday, May 29, we move on to Chapter 9, “The Beauty College and the Technical College.”

Our reading so far: the plan; introduction; chapter 1.

(photos by kaex0r414 and joybot)

Posted in readings | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Another college readies a queen sacrifice

Another American campus has decided to cut faculty and possibly programs.  This time it’s on the west coast, but the queen sacrifice pattern is quite clear.

Mill College via Wikipedia Mills College officially announced it was “restructuring“.  That includes a “Financial Stabilization Plan (FSP) that will require a reduction in force (RIF) of staff and faculty.”

How many people?  Inside Higher Ed reports:

The college expects layoffs to hit 30-35 faculty and staff members. President Elizabeth L. Hillman said it was likely that tenured faculty members would be in that group… The college’s faculty and staff FTE is 353.

So roughly 10% of the full-time population.  As for departments and programs, it’s unclear which cuts will occur, if any.  The official statement refers to “retain[ing] the distinctive Mills experience while transforming our programs to be more attractive, affordable, and accessible”; “transforming” covers a lot of possibilities.

What’s driving these cuts?  My readers know the answer: enrollment and financial pressures.  Back to IHE:

In recent years, applications and enrollments have dropped from prior levels. Consider these numbers from the college’s Common Data Set:

  • In 2013-14, the college had 1,827 applicants, admitted 1,242 and enrolled 217 first-year students.

  • In 2015-16, the college had 839 applications, admitted 639 and enrolled 139 first-year students.

Why is enrollment down?  Mills is in a major and growing urban area, in a very populous and wealthy (if very unequal) state, California.  It may be that the liberal arts education is truly becoming less popular.  It might be because single-sex (well, no men; transwomen are allowed) education is less appealing than it once was.

An interesting detail: Mills declared financial emergency, not financial exigency.  The latter gives them more room to lay off faculty without being sued.  The former, not so much.

Mills is also developing partnerships with local academic institutions.  From the official statement: “Strategic alliances with other institutions, including UC Berkeley and the Peralta colleges, are underway to boost enrollment and enhance opportunities for Mills students.”  That makes sense for the short term. In the medium term these could also be venues for possible mergers, or destinations for students if Mills closes.

One unusual aspect for a queen sacrifice is Mills’ political turn.  The new plan includes support for “[g]ender and racial justice through academic programs and community engagement.”  Let’s see how that plays out in terms of attracted or repelling students.

As I’ve said previously, unless the underlying pressures change – demographics and economics in particular – we will see more of these queen sacrifices.

Posted in research topics | Tagged | 2 Comments

Campus discount rates keep on rising, and why that matters

Private colleges and universities now offer the highest discount rates in recorded history, according to NACUBO.  What on Earth does this mean, and why does it matter?

Tuition discounting describes what students actually pay, rather than what a university’s sticker price says.  You see, private campuses offer discounts – i.e., scholarships and grants – to some students, in order to reduce their payments.  So if a college tuition is $20,000 per year, and the discount rate is 25%, the typical student really pays $15,000.  Since that’s a kind of average, some students will pay even less, and some even more.

Across the United States, as of 2017 the average tuition discount is now 44.2%.  For first-year students, it’s 49.1%.  The typical student pays almost one half of what published tuition is.  This is the highest discount on record:

Discount rates 2005-2017_NACUBO

If we look at it from an institution’s perspective, “or every dollar in gross tuition revenue from those freshmen, institutions used nearly half for grant-based financial aid”.

Breaking down the numbers a bit,

the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen receiving institutional grants rose to an estimated 87.9 percent in 2016-17. That was up from 87.2 percent the year before. The average institutional grant for such freshmen rose to be worth 56.3 percent of tuition and fees, up from 55.4 percent.

What does this mean for higher education?

  • Our published tuition figures are way, way off for many students.  Media accounts nearly always use the published numbers, without noting discount rates; this artificially adds to anxieties about price and debt (as Bob Archibald notes in this Future Trends Forum last year).
  • This reflects schools’ rising desperation to recruit students, when demographics have turned against campuses serving traditional-age people and as general financial pressures escalate.
  • High discount rates also express the reality of widening income inequality.  It’s the 1%, more or less, who pay that tuition sticker prices.  Everyone else receives some discount.
  • Higher ed financing is about as transparent as health care – i.e., not very.

Further, let’s look ahead.

Is this sustainable over the next few years?  That is, can colleges and universities keep raising tuition *and* discount rates, aiming to score both wealthy students and learners in large enough numbers to provide enough revenue to keep the lights on?

For some institutions increasing discounts yield decreasing total revenue.  That is not sustainable.  According to NACUBO, “39.1 percent of respondents reported declining enrollments in both their first-year class and total student body, up from 37.5 percent last year.” IHE adds that

[w]ell over half of survey respondents, 57.7 percent, said their institutions experienced a decline in total undergraduate enrollment between the fall of 2013 and the fall of 2016. Just over half, 50.2 percent, said they experienced a decrease in enrollment of freshmen. A large portion, 39.1 percent, reported decreases in both total undergraduate and freshman enrollment.

A further futures concern speaks to  how will the wealthy react to this continued payment unevenness.  Will the 1% embrace a spirit of noblesse oblige, or will they grow to resent it?  If the latter occurs, I can imagine certain campuses becoming largely preserves of the rich.

Smaller campuses might be more in danger than larger ones.  According to Inside Higher Ed, “[t]uition discount rates were highest among small institutions and lowest for comprehensive universities.”  Will little schools get forced into bad places when they can’t realize larger institutions’ economies of scale?

(via Inside Higher Ed)

Posted in research topics | Leave a comment

When populism met higher education

What does populism mean for education? Until recently this would have been a purely academic question in every sense of the phrase. Recent political developments, including populisms on the right and left, have suddenly rendered this issue a lively one, at least for those of us thinking about education.

The University and the People Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest - Scott M. GelberScott Gelber offers a very useful historical perspective. His The University and the People (2011) explores the impact of late nineteenth century American populism on higher education. Gelber focuses on several states (Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina) and dives deeply into primary sources.

It’s a very rich book, and one I hesitate to summarize, since the text emphasizes complexity and diverse politics, but some key themes emerge. Gelber sees the Populist strategy for higher ed as focusing on three goals: increasing accessibility to higher ed for poor people, especially farmers growing practical and vocational curricular introducing the masses to the academic discipline of political economy. (168)

Framing these desires is an acute consciousness of inequality. At a large scale this famously motivated Populists in general. When it comes to higher ed, such awareness drove multiple policies, like free tuition and expanded ag programs. At times these policies contradicted each other, such as pushing for a university’s improved academic reputation, while seeking open enrollment, or advocating vocational education which did little to address class differences (118).

I’m impressed by Gelber’s even-handedness and attention to local variations. He consistently refuses to collapse all populists into a single, clear ideology, and instead teases out differences and nuance. Examples abound, like Populists trying to end varsity football in Kansas (!) (48) or cannon-equipped students squabbling with a pistol-packing guard in North Carolina (51), or University of Nebraska alumni recalling a time when it was unfashionable to be seen as having money on campus (85). Gender politics are hard to pin down in this era which saw man advocate for college-level home ec as both a conserving and liberating idea (106). Populists were equally capable of seeking to increase or decrease public institutions’ funding (148ff).

What can we learn from this account of academic struggles more than a century ago? We can see once more how some post-secondary education debates persist, namely the fight between increasing access and academic quality, along with the struggle between practical and… other education (99-100). We can hear echoes of the great push to open up higher ed in the 1960s, and today’s free tuition movement, and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work, in their call for “free tuition, scholarships, campus work programs, and low-cost room and board.” (84)

There were even attempts to boost university income through jacking up fees, which were condemned as classist (93-4). Co-ops appeared (95-6). There are echoes of today’s on-campus wellness and health movements with the Populists’ desire to instruct students in both physical and mental activity (119). There’s even a familiar gap between political and academic desires to give students a framework for social engagement, when most seem to have been looking for better-paying jobs.  Anti-black Populists obviously find echoes in today’s hard right.

Academic freedom was a different creature in the 1890s than now, of course. Populists either pushed to fire or retain faculty and administrators for political reasons, as did their opponents (126ff). The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) would go on to defend and expand academic freedom, partly as a response to the Populist moment (145).

I was very surprised to see political economy emerge as a radical curricular topic (110, 128ff). It makes sense for the period as far as my limited understanding goes, since both economics and political science were rising as intellectual disciplines, and apparently offered handles on changing American society. I’m not sure what today’s equivalent would be – surely not poli sci or econ. Perhaps the humanities fields associated with social justice, like gender studies, critical theory, minority studies play a parallel role in mobilizing both student activism and public opposition.

Gelber portrays a wide range of academic responses to Populism. Some faculty and administrators opposed the movement at all points, while others took up the cause (65, 87). For examples of the former, one prep school leader argued that “In the republic of letters there is always an aristocracy.” (71) “Yale University president Timothy Dwight… predicted that the presence of informal students would ‘demoralize’ regular students.” (79) Some deemed populist policies to be part of socialism or communism (91). I wonder how today’s educators respond to contemporary populism, and to what extent those responses echo the 1890s.

The point which resonated most with me, as someone who works in and researches higher education, is the Populists’ argument that higher education reinforced and reproduced class inequality (66 etc). This was based on the reality that late 19th-century college students tended to be from the upper classes (86), sometimes supported by the Greek system (88). Populist insurgents called for academia to change, to oppose inequality through research and practice.

A reader of the Populist Wadesboro Plowboy warned politicians that the people had “made up their minds to stop the appropriation to the University and other institutions of learning for the rich and their pets.” (153)

America isn’t there now, but between populisms of the right and left, we might be close.

Posted in readings | 3 Comments