The 2016 Higher Education Top Ten List

As 2016 rapidly draws to a close (and I scramble to finish a few final projects before my students’ papers are due), it’s time to look back at the year that was in American higher education. Today I present the ten events of the year that I consider to be the most important or influential, with my slightly irreverent list of “not top ten” events coming out tomorrow. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

(10) Magic Johnson has committed to help more than double South Carolina State University’s endowment with a single capital campaign. 2016 has seen some donors give incredibly large gifts to higher education institutions, such as Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s $400 million donation to Stanford and $500 million commitment to his alma mater University of Oregon over the next decade. Yet former basketball star Johnson’s announcement that he would lead a $2.5 million capital campaign to support business students at the financially struggling public HBCU (which got much of a loan from the state forgiven this year in an effort to help SCSU remain accredited) would represent a 250% increase in SCSU’s 2015 endowment of roughly $1 million.

Meanwhile, much more attention has been given to federal efforts to encourage colleges with large endowments to spend more money on student financial aid. The most recent effort, from New York Rep. Tom Reed (a Republican member of President-elect Trump’s transition team), would require the approximately 90 colleges with endowments larger than $1 billion to use at least 25% of their investment income to support lower-income and middle-income students or face a 30% tax. South Carolina State is only about 398 more Magic Johnsons away from feeling the heat from Congress, so I think they’re safe for now.

(9) Grand Canyon University’s effort to become a nonprofit university was denied. The last five years have been pretty tough for much of the for-profit college sector, with Corinthian Colleges closing last year and ITT Technical Institute shutting its doors this year (more on that later). But, as shown by the stock price trend, Grand Canyon University (stock symbol LOPE after its Division I athletic program) has been doing quite well. Grand Canyon operated as a nonprofit university from its founding in 1949 until 2004, when it was bought by a for-profit entity and rapidly expanded. GCU is unusual among for-profits in that it has a Christian mission, has heavily invested in its campus, and has a high enough housing demand that it has had to turn away students looking to live on campus.

lope(Chart courtesy Yahoo! Finance)

Grand Canyon began an effort to become partially nonprofit in 2014 by proposing to create a new nonprofit entity that would then contract with the existing for-profit institution to provide certain services. Although this effort would cost about $2 billion to buy out shareholders, Grand Canyon went ahead and asked its accreditor (the Higher Learning Commission) for permission to make the switch. The HLC denied the request in March due to concerns with the contracting arrangement. Barring a move to a different accreditor (which is unlikely), GCU will likely remain a for-profit for the next several years.

(8) The rate of private nonprofit college closures, although still low, increased. Grand Canyon University has the demographic luxury of being located in the rapidly growing Phoenix metropolitan area, where there are relatively few colleges and lots of prospective students. The majority of private nonprofit colleges, on the other hand, are in areas with less-favorable demographics such as the Northeast, Midwest, or rural South. This concern led the credit rating agency Moody’s to predict last year that about 15 small private nonprofit colleges would close in 2017, up from a ten-year average of five colleges per year.

According to Ray Brown’s excellent College History Garden blog that tracks college closures and mergers, 14 private nonprofit colleges closed their doors in 2016. Two of the closures got a disproportionate amount of attention—Burlington College in Vermont (which was run by Bernie Sanders’s wife for a number of years) and Dowling College in New York (after its attempt to merge with Global University Systems proved unsuccessful). This year’s closure reflects just under one percent of all private nonprofit institutions in the United States, with more colleges opening or expanding in more demographically favorable parts of the country while others are closing.

(7) The National Labor Relations Board allowed graduate students at private colleges to unionize, but this is likely to be temporary. The ability of graduate student employees at public colleges to form unions depends on state laws, but whether or not grad students at private colleges can unionize depends on the National Labor Relations Board. As partisan control of the White House has changed hands, the ability to unionize has also gone back and forth. The Clinton-appointed NLRB allowed students to unionize in 2000, the Bush-appointed NLRB reversed course in 2004, and the Obama-appointed NLRB was widely expected to follow suit as soon as there was a test case before the board.

In August, the NLRB voted to allow Columbia University graduate employees to unionize, setting aside the Bush-era board’s explanation that unionization would adversely affect students’ educational experiences. The union election results were announced last week at Columbia, with students voting to unionize through the United Auto Workers. Undergraduate resident advisers at George Washington University are also considering forming a union, but this effort is likely to last as long as President Obama’s current appointees are still on the NLRB.

(6) A private equity firm with close ties to the Obama administration is attempting to purchase the University of Phoenix.

The University of Phoenix is in need of a rebirth at this point. The for-profit giant once had 460,000 students in 2010, but dropped to half that amount by 2015 amid an improving job market for adults and a range of federal accountability policies that particularly affected proprietary colleges. Seeking a new path (and possibly desiring less scrutiny from the public), three private equity firms offered in February to pay shareholders $1.1 billion to take the company off of the stock market. Notably, one of the firms—Vistria Group—was founded by a close friend of President Obama and employed a former deputy secretary under Arne Duncan who was involved with regulating for-profit colleges.

Shareholders signed off on the $1.14 billion deal in May and the Department of Education approved the deal last week. However, approval comes with several substantial conditions. The owners cannot increase enrollment beyond the current level of 175,000 students or open new programs and must provide the federal government with monthly updates through June 2018. The Department also required that the owners must post a letter of credit equal to 25% of all federal funding, or $386 million. A clause in the deal allows the owners to back out because the letter of credit is larger than 10% of funding, so time will tell if the deal ends up happening.

(5) ITT Technical Institute shut its doors after pressure from multiple stakeholders. When a private nonprofit college closes, that tends to get a lot of attention. Dowling College had about 1,500 students when it closed this summer, while many colleges that close have fewer than 500 students. For-profit college chain ITT Technical Institute, on the other hand, enrolled about 45,000 students in 2015—roughly the size of the University of Michigan’s flagship Ann Arbor campus. ITT Tech’s closure was fully expected when it was announced in September, but the range of factors that led to its demise deserve further discussion—particularly as taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $400 million in forgiven loans.

ITT Tech, along with several other for-profits such as the also-defunct Corinthian Colleges chain, had faced lawsuits from a number of Democratic state attorneys general questioning their recruitment and financial practices. The Securities and Exchange Commission sued ITT Tech in 2015 regarding its private student loan program. In April, ITT Tech received a show-cause notice from its accreditor (the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools) asking the college to explain why it should remain accredited. But the final dagger for ITT Tech was the Department of Education’s August decision to cut off all new students from receiving federal financial aid, to place the college under heightened cash monitoring, and to increase the size of the required letter of credit. ITT Tech halted new enrollment as a result, and then announced its closure not long afterward.

(4) Enrollment in federal income-driven repayment student loan plans continues to rise, but so does the cost to taxpayers. One of the Obama Administration’s key higher education initiatives was to expand the realm of income-driven repayment programs that President Bush signed into law in 2007. As shown below (and further explained in this blog post from earlier in the year), about 40% of all federal Direct Loan dollars are now enrolled in income-driven repayment plans.

repay_aug16The growth of loan forgiveness programs, particularly among borrowers with large amounts of debt for graduate school, has the potential to shift part of the price tag for higher education from students to taxpayers. A scathing Government Accountability Office report on income-driven repayment programs that received front-page attention in The Wall Street Journal estimated that the federal government will forgive $108 billion of the $352 billion currently enrolled in these programs—and that the Department of Education’s methods of estimating costs are woefully inadequate. The amount forgiven could be reduced somewhat by capping the forgiven balances, but expect to hear more about forgiveness costs in the coming year as the first few people will officially apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness in late 2017.

(3) New borrower defense to repayment regulations have the potential to affect all kinds of colleges. Most of the major federal accountability efforts, such as gainful employment regulations, heightened cash monitoring, and letters of credit, have disproportionately affected for-profit colleges. At first glance, the Obama Administration’s newly enacted borrower defense to repayment regulations (summary), which allow student loans to be forgiven if there is “a substantial misrepresentation by the school about the nature of the educational program, the nature of financial changes, or the employability of graduates.” This language is not limited to covering for-profit colleges, meaning that public and private nonprofit colleges may also be subject to the regulations.

In an October blog post, I raised concerns about the ambiguity of the regulations. It will take a while before courts figure out what a “substantial misrepresentation” actually is, and it is quite likely that judges with different ideological perspectives will come up with different definitions. Colleges will be seeking more guidance about how to comply with these regulations, and it will be fascinating to see the first wave of lawsuits that occur under borrower defense to repayment.

(2) One of the largest accrediting agencies may close after a federal panel’s actions. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) usually operates in relative obscurity, but it had a tremendous impact on the year in higher education. In June, the committee was tasked with reviewing the status of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) to determine whether one of the largest accreditors of for-profit colleges should be able to have its member colleges receive federal financial aid. ACICS had faced sharp criticism, most notably by former Department of Education staffer Ben Miller, about its colleges’ academic and recruiting standards.

At the end of a marathon meeting, NACIQI members voted on a largely party-line 10-3 decision to recommend that the Secretary of Education pull ACICS’s accreditation. This decision has been winding its way through the appeals process, with Education Secretary John King denying ACICS’s request to reconsider on December 12. Once the case finishes going through the courts, the 200+ colleges accredited by ACICS serving up to 800,000 students would have 18 months to find a new accreditor in order to maintain federal financial aid eligibility. Some colleges are exploring ways to switch accreditors, while one nonprofit college accredited by ACICS has decided to shut down instead.

(1) Donald Trump’s election brings more questions than answers at this point for American higher education. In almost any normal year, the potential closure of a major accrediting agency would be the lead story. But President-elect Trump’s surprising victory creates a level of uncertainty for higher education that no modern presidential transition can match due to his often-unclear policy positions and lack of political experience. His selection of charter school advocate Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary nominee provides some clarity regarding K-12 education policy, but higher education policy is still relatively unknown.

Following the election, I wrote two pieces looking ahead to the Trump Administration that are still valid given the current state of the presidential transition. The morning after the election, I offered my five suggestions for the Trump transition team in the realm of higher education, including focusing on Higher Education Act reauthorization and working to make more data available to the public. I was then asked to write a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education on what Trump’s election could mean for higher education finance and accountability. There are still a lot of unknowns, but it is likely that the federal government will likely take a step back on regulations—particularly for the for-profit sector. The first year of the Trump Administration should be interesting, to say the least.

Honorable mentions: States continue discussing tuition-free community college, the Department of Education’s EQUIP experiment begins, campus carry protests in Texas get interesting, three-day faculty strike at Pennsylvania public colleges, financial aid policy makes The Daily Showpublic higher education funding improved in most states, gainful employment earnings data release, yours truly being turned into a .gif, Coastal Carolina University won a surprising College World Series title.

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University.