The 2017 Higher Education Top Ten List

It’s safe to say that 2017 has been one of the most fascinating years in the realm of higher education policy in a long while. With the Trump administration seeking to reverse many Obama-era policies and both states and the private sector taking bold actions, there has been no shortage of high-impact events over the last year. (It’s a big enough year that the tax reform bill doesn’t even make my top ten!)

In my fifth annual top ten list (see past lists here), I present the ten events of the year that I consider to be the most important or influential. (My slightly irreverent list of “not top ten” events comes out tomorrow.) As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

(10) The IRS Data Retrieval Tool was taken offline in March due to security concerns. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool was first unveiled in September 2010 to allow students to directly transfer financial information from their income tax forms to the FAFSA. This helped improve data accuracy and further streamlined the process of filing for federal financial aid. But on March 3, the popular tool suddenly disappeared, with no explanation given for six days. It turns out that the outage may have been a result of someone trying to access President Trump’s tax information using the tool (the person is now facing up to five years in prison), which alerted the IRS to security issues. Access was finally restored for the start of the 2018-19 FAFSA season in October, and it does not look like President Trump actually received any federal financial aid thanks to the hacking attempt.

(9) Faculty tenure faces skepticism in a number of statehouses. As Republicans have become more skeptical of higher education in recent years, conservative legislators in Iowa and Missouri introduced legislation in 2017 to limit or end the practice of faculty tenure. These bills, which did not pass, would have gone much farther than Wisconsin’s changes that made it easier to fire tenured faculty if financial issues occurred. (Another bill in Iowa would have required universities to roughly balance the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the faculty.) Notably, University of Iowa president Bruce Harreld—no favorite of facultyhas forcefully spoken in favor of tenure. As I go up for tenure next fall, it’s becoming clear that the ranks of tenured faculty will continue to diminish outside star faculty at elite institutions. The question to me is how quickly tenure falls off—not whether it continues to happen.

(8) Two Obama administration alumni take key higher education leadership roles. Together, Jamienne Studley and Ted Mitchell served as undersecretary of education for most of President Obama’s second term in office. They had an outsized influence on higher education policy during their tenure, including issues such as gainful employment, college ratings, and the collapse of several for-profit college chains. In 2017, they both took on new roles. Studley became president of the regional accreditor WASC, while Mitchell became president of the influential American Council on Education. It will be interesting to see how the ex-Obama officials will handle the transition to heading groups they once had influence over, and it will be even more interesting to see how Republicans in Washington treat these two leaders.

(7) The Charlotte School of Law closed after suffering a series of setbacks. Part of the for-profit InfiLaw chain, Charlotte once enrolled more than 1,400 students in its early 2010s peak. But the school ran into issues with its accreditor over the its low bar exam passage rates, which led to the Obama administration cutting off Charlotte’s access to federal student loans at the end of 2016. Without this lifeblood (Charlotte students took out over $48 million in loans in 2015-16 alone) and the school’s future being unclear, students began to leave in droves. Of the 700 students who started in fall 2016, only about 100 students were left by the time Charlotte officially closed on August 10. Under federal rules for a closed school discharge of student loans, only students who were still enrolled as of April 12 were eligible for a full discharge of loans. Other students could (and did) file for relief under borrower defense to repayment—which requires a higher burden of proof. Democratic members of Congress have asked for a longer closed school discharge window, but that has not yet happened.

The InfiLaw chain was the rough basis for John Grisham’s newest book, The Rooster Bar. It’s a worthwhile read over the holidays, even when it veers far away from higher education policy.

(6) It was a great year for data on higher education outcomes. The release of the College Scorecard in 2015 was a big step forward for researchers, policymakers, and the public—providing the first comprehensive institutional-level data on earnings and student loan repayment rates. (And the Department of Education recently signed a five-year agreement to keep getting earnings data from Treasury, allaying the fears of some about data in the Trump administration.) This year also saw the long-awaited release of graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients and part-time/transfer students via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

But the data release that stole the show in 2017 was from the Equality of Opportunity Project, a tremendous and well-funded collaboration by several top economists. With a well-coordinated release in the New York Times, the team made available its college-level data on the percentage of students from lower-income families who reached higher income quintiles by their early 30s. This highlighted the good work of many moderately-selective public and private nonprofit colleges, as well as the incredible share of super-wealthy students at Ivy League institutions. (The dataset also has marriage rates by college, which I had fun playing around with.) One caution: since the data come from tax records, some colleges are aggregated in strange ways. Be mindful of that when using this great dataset.

(5) The first people are eligible to receive Public Service Loan Forgiveness benefits, but who will actually qualify? President Bush signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act in 2007, creating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Under PSLF, students working in a range of nonprofit or government agencies are eligible to have their federal loans forgiven after making 120 qualified payments under an income-driven repayment plan. October 1 marked the first date that borrowers could actually qualify and fill out the applicationfor forgiveness. Nearly 700,000 borrowers have filled out voluntary employment certification forms (and more will probably file for forgiveness later on), but expect to see chaos in 2018 as borrowers who think they met all the criteria get denied forgiveness for various reasons. President Trump’s budget and the House’s draft Higher Education Act reauthorization bill also have proposed ending PSLF for new borrowers, so stay tuned about the future of PSLF.

(4) “Free college” programs continue to grow, but also face growing pains. Inspired by the generally successful (and politically popular) Tennessee Promise program, other states and communities have adopted various tuition-free college models. New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program, which covered nearly all tuition (but not fees) at four-year public colleges beginning in fall 2017, got a lot of attention. Unfortunately, much of this was negative due to all of the strings attached to the funds in order for the budget numbers to work, including a requirement that students stay in state after college or the grant converts to a loan. (Rhode Island adopted the same type of post-college residency requirement in its new plan.) Meanwhile, Oregon’s existing program had to scale back somewhat as not enough funds were available, creating the possibility of disappointment effects among students who did not get the money they were expecting. Tennessee’s program has an endowment from state lottery funds—which many states cannot do, but provides extra stability.

(3) A number of colleges saw unrest due to protests and disliked speakers—and then the neo-Nazis came to Charlottesville. The tensions between higher education and other parts of American society have been growing over the last several years, with campus protests over racism continuing in 2017 (and contributing to the protests that briefly closed Evergreen State College in Washington). Some colleges also saw protests related to campus speeches by right-wing professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (which drew the ire of President Trump) and anti-Trump libertarian scholar Charles Murray, leading to the House’s Higher Education Act reauthorization bill requiring public colleges to protect free speech.

Campus tensions reached new heights in August, when neo-Nazis gathered at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and committed a terrorist attack by driving into a crowd of counterprotestors and killing one person. Well-known “white nationalist” Richard Spencer has sparked near-riots on several campuses by attempting to speak, even when nobody on campus wants him to attend. These deplorable individuals will continue to try to speak on college campuses (and they have the constitutional right to do so, in my view), but I wish that nobody would pay attention to these people—thus denying them the attention they seek.

(2) Purdue University announces it will purchase for-profit Kaplan University for $1. It takes a lot to render me at a loss for words, but the April 27 announcement that Purdue and Kaplan had agreed to a contract that would transfer Kaplan’s nearly 32,000 students (who are mostly online) to a Purdue-owned “New U” did exactly that. (Kaplan would continue to operate most of the non-academic parts of the university.) Faculty members at Purdue are strongly opposed to the deal, which was enabled by a quiet change to state law made as negotiations were occurring. The deal has gotten approval from state and federal regulators, but the deal will ultimately hinge on receiving approval from Purdue’s accreditor. A decision is expected in the next few months. This deal bears watching due to its magnitude and the potential for public universities to greatly expand their outreach to nontraditional students if the partnership is successful.

(1) Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration try to undo a host of Obama-era regulations. It is no secret that conservatives seethed as the Obama administration implemented regulations on topics such as gainful employment, borrower defense to repayment, and the definition of a credit hour for financial aid purposes. Now that they hold the House, Senate, and White House, Republicans are trying to undo these regulations amid fierce opposition from Democrats. The Department of Education has postponed the effective date of borrower defense to repayment regulations and has delayed data collection for gainful employment. There are currently negotiated rulemaking panels to reconsider both borrower defense to repayment and gainful employment, while the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill from House Republicans would effectively salt the earth on regulations by pulling the Department of Education’s ability to ever revisit these and other topics. Expect to see lawsuits galore as these efforts moves forward.

Honorable mentions: Elite colleges face pressures over their endowment sizes and usage (and will likely face a tax going forward), Cheyney University keeps its accreditation, Cardale Jones graduates from Ohio State years after questioning the value of an education, faculty start their own scholarship funds to support students, international student enrollments dip.

[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.