• January 23, 2015 09:04 AM Year-Round Pell Grants: What You Know is Probably Not True

    The year-round Pell Grant was a widely misunderstood federal program. Despite existing for just a few short years, it has garnered a reputation as overly expensive and poorly implemented. But these popular myths disguise the true story of a valuable program that fell victim to broader economic circumstances beyond its control and years of Congressional unwillingness to address funding challenges.

    Those are the key findings from “Myths and Misunderstandings: The Undeserved Legacy of Year-Round Pell Grants,” published today by New America’s Education Policy Program. It sets the record straight on what happened to the year-round grant.

    The Pell Grant program helps millions of students from low-income families finance their higher educations each year with $32 billion in federal funds that support a maximum grant of $5,730 per student. Students can use the grants at virtually every type of school for a wide range of credentials, from certificates, two-year degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Today, however, full-time students cannot use the grants year-round, thanks to the way the Pell Grant program operates.

    There was a brief period when that wasn’t the case. In late 2008, as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, President Bush and a Democratically-controlled Congress made a common-sense change that  let students who had exhausted their Pell Grants in a school year and wanted to take more classes, access additional grant aid.

    But in early 2011, President Obama and Congress ended this so-called year-round Pell Grant. Why? Many in the higher education community — including authoritative sources from Congress, the Obama administration, and the Congressional Research Service — will say it was because the program was flawed. Up until now, however, no one has examined those claims.

    To find out what actually happened, we carefully reviewed the history of the year-round Pell Grant, the statute and regulations that implemented it, budget statistics, and the rationales given for its elimination. We also interviewed experts inside and outside the executive branch and Congress. What we found was not gross incompetence, abuse, or ill-designed policy that many believed plagued the original program.

    The new paper scrutinizes common claims such as: students inadvertently received larger grants than intended; a year-round benefit shouldn’t increase the cost of the overall Pell Grant program; for-profit colleges abused the program; and the Department of Education botched the implementation of the program, diving costs higher.

    Ultimately, the paper shows that the year-round program was buffeted by the same forces that caused every other part of the Pell Grant program to rise in cost. And those forces coincided with decisions Congress had made that exacerbated funding problems with the overall Pell Grant program. Ending year-round grants became an expedient way to trim costs without sacrificing more visible parts of the broader Pell Grant program.

    You can read the paper here.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • January 22, 2015 03:45 PM Public School: Our Best Weapon Against Terror Attacks on Freedom of Speech?

    Waving flags and pens won’t unify a country like public schools can.

    If you want more patriotic citizens, then demand the integration of public schools. Protect the country from inside the schoolhouse out.

    This month’s attacks in Paris were both unpredictable and expected. Harder to defuse, lone-wolf terrorist plots continue to sprout abroad and in the U.S. Many domestic efforts have been foiled since 9/11, but one U.S. official said of decentralized attacks, “It’s like the war on drugs. This isn’t going to stop.”

    Comparing terrorism to drug addiction is not the most useful view of human behavior. But the aforementioned quote does illuminate that security forces must continuously lean on prevention as a necessary defense against decentralized terror attacks.

    Integrated, effective public schools are more likely to bond young people closer to a country than flag waving, allegiance checks ever will.

    The anti-Islamic protests in Germany certainly didn’t seek to build social cohesion.

    Former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to raise a countrywide dialogue on national identity also raised ethnocentric beliefs of what it means to be a Frenchmen. In the U.S., the rhetoric of  “take back the country” can’t be unifying.

    Who’s afraid of patriotism? It’s right to bolster love for a country among members as a primary prevention strategy, but that won’t happened by insidiously alienating minority groups or elevating certain classes of people.

    Quality public schools literally give students a common language, provide opportunity for social advancement and when effective, give students a boat for the mainstream.

    Whether we’re talking about radicalized jihadists or right wing aggressors who are resistant to ethnic, racial and religious diversity, countries must assume that alienation leads to radical acts of terror.

    Said and Cherif Kouachi were more members of the underclass than of mainstream French society. Limited job opportunities, incarceration, as well as educational, residential and social isolation all till the soil of terrorism. Consequently, countries should maximize connectedness and foster a greater sense of loyalty to the nation - patriotism - in ways that truly reflect its devoted members.

    We can’t only react to lone-wolf style aggressions. Prevention has to be rooted in patriotism, which should foster beliefs and traditions that compel disparate members to share a sense of fate. Schools don’t simply prepare students for the workforce. History, language arts, civics and other classes acculturate students into our constantly evolving conception of what it means to be American.

    As an aside, the GOP efforts to hitch Homeland Security funding to Obama’s executive actions on immigration, particularly Blackburn amendments that target the Dream Act, are counterproductive. Why alienate people who are likely to be citizens? Isn’t homeland security chiefly about promoting safety among neighbors - citizen and non-citizens?

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • January 21, 2015 05:51 PM Gov. Bobby Jindal, Policy Wonk

    No comment.


  • January 21, 2015 04:00 PM Today in Bad Marketing Campaigns, a College without “College”

    Those of us who follow higher education know that if one thing is constant in higher education it’s the effort colleges make to “rebrand” themselves, as more selective, more Christian, more artistic, or the ever-popular “more prestigious.”

    American colleges are, compared to the rest of the world, mostly pretty new. Some of this is understandable because so many institutions are really still figuring out what they want to be. But it turns out this sort of behavior is not unique to the United States.

    King’s College London a public research university in London, technically a part of the University of London, was founded in 1829. But it too is still figured out what to be. But its latest rebranding campaign has failed.

    According to an article in the Independent:

    King’s College London became the latest rebranding casualty after it was forced to abandon plans to drop the word “college” from its name and introduce a minimalist new logo and website.
    The idea - which is believed to have costs tens of thousands of pounds - had been strongly resisted by students, who dismissed the proposed new name “King’s London” as “pretentious” and more suitable for a brand of aftershave.

    And also a little vague. King’s London could be a brand of aftershave, or stationary store, or Houston housing development, or cigarettes or something but it certainly did not suggest something devoted to education. At the very least, after all, an institution of higher learning has “college” or “university,” sometimes both, in its name. Students thought the rebranding plan was kind of stupid.

    The rebrand had been due to be implemented next month, but students were told that their campaign had been successful. “The decision is to keep that name [King’s College London] in every way, both as our official name and how we talk about ourselves. So, no more ‘King’s London’,” Principal Edward Byrne told the student publication, Roar.

    Bryne (principal is sort of like a college president in the U.S.) announced he wanted to start calling his school King’s London about 18 months ago. He thought it would be useful because,

    “Our current name was causing considerable confusion: is King’s a residential college, is it an academic college akin to the colleges of Oxbridge, or is it an educational institution of some other type such as a further education college?”

    Well, valid point, Bryne, but removing the word “college” didn’t really make the situation any clearer to prospective students, did it?

    The rebranding campaign cost the equivalent of between $130,000 and $450,000.

  • January 20, 2015 06:28 PM Fact-Checking and the CUNY-Atlantic Debacle

    On Tuesday last week the Atlantic published an article highlighting changes at the City University of New York, a college system that, in the view of the authors, was increasingly bifurcated. Wealthier white and Asian students tended to go to the top CUNY colleges, and poorer black and Hispanics tended to be relegated to the less selective community colleges run by the system. As a result, according to the original headline, “…High Achievers Have No Place To Go.”

    And then it got complicated. This came to my attention later in the week. I had written a piece here about the article. Jay Hershenson, vice chancellor for university relations for CUNY, called me up and demanded a retraction. The Atlantic article contained significant factual errors and this needed to be addressed immediately, he said. I was surprised, but Hershenson was right.

    At various points between Tuesday and the end of the week the Atlantic made numerous edits to the piece, changing some of the focus, removing the anecdotal lede, and altering the headline, which now reads “What It Takes to Get Into New York City’s Best Public Colleges.”

    The magazine has apologized, sort of, and explained that:

    This article has been significantly revised post-publication to correct for factual errors in the original version.

    That’s not all:

    An earlier version of this article led with a personal college-admissions story that we have since determined to be insufficiently relevant to the remainder of the article. An earlier correction also inaccurately portrayed the order of events that led the student to his ultimate decision about where to enroll in college. As well, our original display copy suggested that top-performing students are having trouble gaining acceptance to all CUNY schools; in fact, this story is about their difficulty in gaining entry to the top five CUNY colleges: Baruch, Queens, Brooklyn, City, and Hunter. We regret these errors. Additionally, this article originally included quotations in its introduction and conclusion, since removed in the reframing of those sections, from David Jones, the president and CEO of the nonprofit organization the Community Service Society, who is also the chairman of the board of the Nation Institute. The Nation Institute helped support research for this article, a relationship that was fully disclosed.

    And furthermore:

    Students who enter CUNY community colleges have a 8 percent chance of graduating after six years, rather than over an indefinite time period.

    It was, as Hershenson put it to me, like the Rolling Stone rape story all over again.


    That’s debatable, but it’s pretty serious.

    What seems surprising about this is that the authors were not exactly inexperienced. LynNell Hancock is a professor at Columbia Journalism School. Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report. Both are longtime education journalists.

    How did this happen? Well the Nation Institute thing is pretty hard to explain, but most of this just seems to come down to errors in fact-checking.

    Every journalist fears this. When you’ve worked so hard on a story and went through such work on a piece to get all of the details right, but then you got something really, really wrong. But if that comes about after your story has already been published the piece basically turns into garbage.

    I’ve been responsible for something like this once. It’s humiliating and it often ruins the relationship between a journalist and a publication, but it comes down to time and money, which are in pretty sort supply in journalism today.

    Magazines of ideas publish articles about complicated topics, often involving statistical research, numerous difficult interviews, and extensive rewriting. This is part of the reason these pieces are unique and original, but it’s also how errors are introduced into copy, and how reputations are ruined and magazines get sued. Because of this publications often perform a line-by-line fact-check of a piece before it goes to publication.

    At certain magazines, particularly Mother Jones and the New Yorker, that means every single line in a piece is verified with a primary source document and every person interviewed for the article gets a call from the fact-checker for quote verification. That means a reader knows if the article says lobbyist spent $325.00 taking a politician to dinner the lobbyist did not actually spend $297.50. It also means if it says the lobbyist was wearing a pink shirt he was not wearing a yellow one.

    But publications don’t always do this anymore. Indeed, with smaller editorial budgets and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s increasingly rare. This is particularly the case with web-only pieces, where the turnaround time and relative ease of damage control is such that many publications barely bother with fact-checking anymore.

    If the story looks good and you want to get it out quickly before someone else reports it often a publication will just speed up the whole process. Certainly re-interviewing a subject and chasing down primary source documents to verify the accuracy of “the order of events that led the student to his ultimate decision about where to enroll in college” is rare. It’s common just to do a quick check of proper names and then put the thing up.

    The real harm with sloppy fact-checking is that an error—and fact-checkers catch lots of them, in drafts of really good pieces by really wonderful journalists—can effectively kill a piece and, if the article is part of a trend or theme, eliminate any chance of anyone addressing the real substance of the story.

    Even after the Atlantic issued its correction it still seems the central point of the CUNY story was correct. A system designed to provide New York’s striving working class students with an affordable college education has become a two-tiered system that operates very differently. That might be something worth exploring.

    But now nothing’s going to happen with that, nothing at all. For all the impact it’s going to have, the authors might not have bothered to write the piece at all.

  • January 20, 2015 10:20 AM At Education Week: Connect Children to the Classroom Early

    Last week, Education Week released its annual Quality Counts report. This year, the report includes an expansive focus on early education: “Preparing to Launch: Early Childhood’s Academic Countdown.” It’s worth checking out.

    As part of the release, I wrote a commentary in response to this question posed by Education Week: What’s a research concern that we still need answered about early-childhood education?

    I say that while there has been a great deal of research on what children need from birth through 3rd grade, it really has yet to be recognized by policymakers and practitioners. I also point out that not only do we need to better connect research to what’s happening in early education classrooms, but there needs to be more of a focus on implementation. A policy — even if it’s based on strong research — won’t have a positive impact on teaching and learning if it is not implemented well.

    Read my entire piece here.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • January 19, 2015 10:14 AM Three Lessons From Data on the Best Ways to Give Feedback to Students


    Proponents of computerized instruction often point out that software can give instant feedback to students. And that helps students learn more. That’s why a personal tutor can be so powerful. He or she can immediately react when there’s a misunderstanding and provide an explanation or a hint. But the truth is, educators don’t really understand how a teacher’s feedback leads to learning and exactly what kinds of feedback work best.

    A team of researchers led by Fabienne M. Van der Kleij from the Cito Institute for Educational Measurement and the University of Twente in the Netherlands set out to see if the universe of computerized instruction might offer some clues about what kinds of feedback are most effective. Their paper, “Effects of Feedback in a Computer-Based Learning Environment on Students’ Learning Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis,”  was published online January 8, 2015 in the Review of Educational Research.

    Though the researchers initially found more than 1600 studies that looked at how students learned from computer responses to their answers, they determined that only 40 of these studies were high quality ones that directly compared different types of feedback to see which were most effective.  Most of the studies were aimed at university students and the researchers lamented how few studies looked at how younger students respond to computerized feedback. 

    But from analyzing the 40 high-quality studies, here’s what they learned.

    1) Rethinking “try, try again.”

    Many software programs alert a student when an answer is wrong, often asking the student to try again until he gets the right answer before moving on to the next question. (For example, the popular Raz-Kids reading program used in many elementary schools asks students a series of multiple choice comprehension questions about each book. The computer marks incorrect answers with an X). 

    You’d think that getting a student to discover his mistake and correct his error would be incredibly effective. But just the opposite is true. Simply marking wrong answers was the worst form of feedback. In some cases, students examined after receiving this kind of try-again feedback had learning outcomes that were lower than students who hadn’t received any feedback at all on the same initial set of questions. 

    Why doesn’t it work? The authors explain that students typically click on a different answer, without thinking, and keep clicking until the computer marks it right. The lead researcher, Van der Kleij, said that her findings here about computerized feedback echo what other researchers have found in an an ordinary classroom environment. “Over time research has recognized that a trial-and-error procedure was not very effective in student learning, because it does not inform the learner about how to improve,” she wrote in her paper. 

    Perhaps teachers should reconsider the common practice of flagging incorrect answers on homework. I’ve often wondered what it does to a student’s motivation to see work marked with red x’s but no insight on how to improve.

    Spoon-feeding the correct answer to a student worked better. For example, if a student got “what is 10 x 10?” wrong, telling him that the answer is 100 was helpful, at least on simple learning tasks, such as this type of math drilling or learning foreign vocabulary words.

    2) Explanations are the most effective

    Spoon-feeding doesn’t work as well for more complicated things, such as using new vocabulary words in an essay. More learning occurs when the computer system offers some sort of explanation or a hint to help the student understand what he got wrong.

    But the boost to student learning varied widely, the Dutch researchers found, perhaps because the quality of the hints or explanations varied widely too. In some of the underlying studies that Van der Kleij looked at, an explanation consisted of the working out of an entire math problem, step by step. In others, it merely suggested a procedure that could be used. Still other times, the computer gave what educators call “metacognitive” feedback, such as asking the student, “Can you think of any similar tasks you have solved in the past?

    In one of the most successful of the 40 feedback studies reviewed by the authors, Alfred Valdez, a professor at New Mexico State University taught a basic statistics lesson to university students using instructional software. But before the lesson began, he told the students they had to get 90 percent of the questions right. When students got a question wrong, a hint automatically popped up so that they could try again. (For example, if a student erred on the question, “Would an unusually large number in a data set affect the median or the mean more?”,  the computer reminded the students what the definitions of mean and median are.) Valdez believes the key to his experiment’s success was the goal-setting, an idea he took from the business world.

    Hints “are the most difficult. Learners don’t typically like that kind of feedback,” Valdez said in an interview. “They have to work more, so you need to give them an incentive to use the feedback and not just ignore it.” 

    A big problem that Valdez had was coming up with a good hint ahead of time. “Humans are much better equipped to get into a student’s head and figure out where the misconception is coming from and guide them,” he said. “The problem with computer-based instruction is that I had to come up with general principle that might be good for everyone, but wasn’t [necessarily] good for each individual student.”

    Customizing feedback isn’t easy. Valdez said he once saw an experiment where students were offered a multitude of feedback choices and they could pick the ones they found most useful. Naturally, students picked the explanation that required the least thinking on their part. 

    3)  Later is sometimes better

    When to give feedback depends upon how complicated the material is, the researchers found. When doing simple things like memorizing vocabulary or learning times tables, immediate feedback after each question was best. But when absorbing something more complicated, students learned more when the feedback was delayed a bit, perhaps until after the student had answered all the questions.

    In our email exchange, Van der Kleij cautioned against making any computer-to-human leaps of logic and applying these lessons to ordinary classrooms. Students might ignore feedback more on a computer, for example — although there’s also evidence that students ignore much of the feedback that teachers write in the margins of their papers. But she did find it interesting that the research on computerized feedback is confirming what education experts already know about ordinary feedback. What’s interesting to me is why education technology makers aren’t  taking more advantage of that research to improve feedback.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • January 19, 2015 10:09 AM How We Can Pay Tribute to Mothers of Slain Children on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

    They say, “A mother’s work is never done.” Depressingly, the work referenced in this motto can be that of social justice. As new leadership emerges in highflying cases of injustice, mothers of slain unarmed black men and boys have become primary teachers of the prevention of racial bias and discrimination.

    The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and an unrecognized number speak with unequivocal clarity as to who and what kill our children. As Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, said plainly, “My son was profiled, followed and murdered … and there was nothing accidental about that.”

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have undoubtedly lifted the voice of Sybrina Fulton as a graceful instructor of justice, and he would have certainly marched behind Fulton and her contemporaries.

    Related: As a police officer kills without consequence in Ferguson, let’s look at profiling, education’s silent serial killer for black kids

    A Miami native, Fulton graduated from Florida Memorial University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. For 25 years, Fulton worked for the Miami-Dade County Housing Development Agency. She is a member of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church of Miami Gardens and mother of a slain child.

    Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, addresses the group of protesters Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, on the lawn of the Duval County Courthousein Jacksonville, Fla., in support of the family of Jordan Davis before the start of Monday morning's jury selection in the retrial of Michael Dunn in the loud music shooting death of Davis. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)

    Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, addresses the group of protesters Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, on the lawn of the Duval County Courthousein Jacksonville, Fla., in support of the family of Jordan Davis before the start of Monday morning’s jury selection in the retrial of Michael Dunn in the loud music shooting death of Davis. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Self)

    In his profound and all too relevant eulogy for the four little girls murdered in the infamous Birmingham church bombing, Dr. King reminded us that “history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.” No one deserves to die for going on a snack run as Trayvon did. Surely, the death of the innocent are due justice.

    However as Dr. King proved, one cannot redeem justice on faith, metaphysics, or karma alone. Action must move the waves of justice.

    Sybrina Fulton’s actions are creating a high tide. For the last two years, Fulton has tirelessly traveled the country providing healing words to the sick injustices lodged in the heart of our country’s principal institutions.

    Along with Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s father, Fulton established the Trayvon Martin Foundation in 2012 with the purpose of creating “awareness of how violent crime impacts the families of the victims and to provide support and advocacy for those families.” Her foundation keeps the focus on the victims, who along with their families are often lost in the spectacle of the crime and public outcry. The foundation also promotes conflict resolution techniques for the inevitable confrontations between strangers.

    She has been a mentor to the mothers of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other mothers of slain children across the country. In addition, Ms. Fulton’s uprightness and lucidity serves as a beacon for the millions who marched in the darkness of non-indictments in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases.

    Fulton helps the keeps our eyes on the prize.

    In a statement and petition with Tracy Martin, Fulton stated, “Despite our despair, we must honor Trayvon’s legacy by doing all that we can to protect other young people from being targeted, pursued, and senselessly murdered.” Fulton’s dignified steadfastness teaches us what personal and systemic changes our society needs.

    Related: Next generation of activists confronts Mississippi’s violent past on Freedom Summer anniversary

    Again, Dr. King’s eulogy is pertinent. He preached, “And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.”

    Consequently, through the Travon Martin Foundation, Fulton has sought to arrest the policies that are the accomplices to the wrongful deaths and detentions of citizens. In particular, Fulton keeps chipping away at “stand your ground” laws that block the entranceway towards racial equality in the justice system. Institutional change will make sure Trayvon’s brief life will not be in vain. But it’s through Fulton’s grace that changes our hearts.

    Yes, a mother’s work is never done. Her other son Jahvaris recently graduated from Florida International University, and that work will certainly remain. However, since the death of Trayvon, we are appreciative that Sybrina Fulton’s mothering continues by demanding justice for the rest of us. I thank Sybrina Fulton on this MLK Holiday.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • January 18, 2015 01:53 PM Comments on President Obama’s State of the Union Higher Education Proposals

    As President Obama enters the last two years of his presidency, he has made higher education one of the key points in his policy platform. The announcement of a plan to give students two years of free tuition at community colleges has gotten a great deal of attention, even though a lot of details are still lacking. (See my analysis of the plan here.) In an unusual Saturday night release, the Obama Administration laid out some details of its tax proposals that will be further elaborated in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.

    Many of the tax provisions will either directly affect higher education, or they will impact students and their families who are currently struggling to pay for college. Here is a quick overview of the provisions:

    • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which goes to lower-income families with some wage income. This credit is fully refundable, meaning that families can benefit even if they don’t have a tax liability to offset with a credit (meaning that negative effective tax rates can result).
    • Expand and streamline the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is designed to offset high costs of child care. This could help the growing number of students who have children.
    • Consolidate the tuition and fees deduction and Lifetime Learning Credit into a streamlined and expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, and making the AOTC permanent (it is set to expire in 2017). The AOTC would be set at $2,500 per year for five years and would be indexed for inflation. The AOTC would also be expanded to cover part-time students and the refundable portion would increase from $1,000 to $1,500. Finally, Pell Grant funds received would not count toward the AOTC. The AOTC expansion would be partially covered by reducing tax incentives for 529 and Coverdell savings plans.
    • Eliminate any taxes on any student loan balances forgiven after making the full 20 years of payment under income-based repayment plans. Right now, students are scheduled to be taxed on any balances—although few (if any) students have actually faced the tax burden at this point. This would partially be paid for by getting rid of the student loan interest deduction; essentially, students would lose any tax benefits for paying interest during the life of the loan, but they could benefit at the end of the payment period.

    Although the exact costs of each of these proposals will not be known until the President releases his budget document later this spring, it appears that much of the revenue needed to pay for these expanded programs will come from higher taxes on higher-income individuals and large financial companies. Those tax increases are extremely unlikely to be passed by a Republican Congress, but some of the individual tax credit proposals may still be considered with funding coming from other sources.

    Putting concerns about feasibility and funding aside, there are some things to like about the President’s proposals, while there are other things not to like. I’m generally not a fan of tax credits for higher education, as it is far less efficient to give students and their families money months after enrollment instead of when they actually need it the most. A great new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by George Bulman and Caroline Hoxby examined the effectiveness of federal higher education tax credits and found essentially no impacts of tax credits on enrollment or persistence rates. It would be far better to give students a smaller grant at enrollment than a larger grant later on, but that is unlikely to ever happen due to the political popularity of tax credits on both sides of the aisle.

    But I do like the part of the proposal that cuts the student loan interest deduction and directs the savings toward addressing the ticking time bomb of the loan forgiveness tax. The interest deduction is complicated, making it less likely to be claimed by lower-income households. Additionally, making interest partially tax-deductible could be seen as encouraging students to borrow more, potentially putting upward pressures on tuition. That is a difficult claim to verify empirically, but it is something that is often mentioned in discussions about college prices.

    Regardless of whether any of these proposals become law, it is exciting to see so much discussion of higher education finance and policy at this point. Hopefully, there will be additional proposals coming from both sides of the political aisle that will help students access and complete high-quality higher education.

    [Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

  • January 16, 2015 09:59 AM Seeking Political Support, Colleges Prod Students to Vote

    From the day they turned up for orientation at California Polytechnic State University, freshmen were bombarded by a music video set to the catchy tune of the hip-hop hit Fancy.

    This version, though, was very different from the original sung by Australian hip-hop artist Iggy Azalea. Set in a Cal Poly classroom, it featured bored-looking students slowly being spurred — in a blaze of enthusiastic red, white and blue — to exercise their right to vote.

    “Students, voice your vote and let the whole world hear it,” went the rap, hosted on the university’s official website and part of a get-out-the-vote campaign that also used posters, flyers, notices on desks and tables in the library and dining halls, and an online voter registration link featured prominently on the class-registration portal.

    It was part of a growing movement, quietly supported by universities and colleges, to increase student political clout and discourage elected officials from making the kinds of budget cuts and other high-stakes changes that are buffeting higher education.student-voting-chart

    Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite

    For all of this effort, the outcome was lackluster. Only 1,400 of Cal Poly’s 19,000 students, or about one in 14, registered to vote, said Joi Sullivan, student government president, who helped orchestrate the campaign. That was even lower than the nationwide one-in-five rate at which college-aged Americans went to the polls in November.

    “With students, the focus is your education, it’s finding a job, a career, and there is this lack of understanding that in order to change a system you have to work within the system,” conceded Sullivan, a political science major. Plus, she said, “We’ve grown up in an era of consistent gridlock. It’s hard to understand that our votes really make a difference.”

    That difference is becoming critical to universities and colleges, which face political challenges everywhere, from city councils to state legislatures to Congress and the White House, said George Mehaffy, vice president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, or AASCU.

    He contrasted the anemic student vote to the robust political engagement of retirees.

    “No politician wants to touch Social Security. Social Security is the third rail of politics, because old people vote,” said Mehaffy, who oversees AASCU’s American Democracy Project, which pushes voter education and registration on campus.

    By contrast, he said, “Legislators in general don’t fear students because they know their track record is not particularly good” in terms of voting. “But I’m starting to hear rumblings of some growing awareness that political leverage might be useful for students as they confront rising tuition and inexorable growth in costs.”

    Now student-voting advocates are turning their attention to 2016 with a new sense of purpose.

    Related: Poorest states cut what experts say could help the most: higher ed

    In addition to longtime initiatives with pop-culture credibility, such as the nearly 25-year-old Rock the Vote, aggressive new voter-registration operations have cropped up to take on student political apathy.

    One, TurboVote, teams up with universities and colleges to make it fast and easy for students to register online, supplies them with absentee ballots and even texts them when it’s time to go to the polls. Cofounded by a pair of Harvard grads, it has grown from having one partner university at the beginning of 2012 to 220 now, and was featured prominently at a conference of university government-relations officers in New Orleans in December.

    “Obviously there’s a huge amount of work to do,” Sam Novey, TurboVote’s partnerships director, said at the nonprofit’s headquarters in a technology incubator space in a high-ceilinged building in Brooklyn where staffers on tattered couches pecked away at laptops under handwritten inspirational sayings taped to the walls (“We have it in our power to begin the world over again” — Thomas Paine).

    TurboVote uses technology to lower the barriers presented by the complicated process of registering to vote and casting ballots, especially for young people who have never done it before and who move frequently and may live in dormitories whose addresses voting authorities don’t recognize.

    Related: Why two states have poured money into public higher education

    “It gives people who were going to vote anyway an easy access to voting, and for those who might not, gets them across the line,” Novey said.

    Urging students across that line presents a predicament for colleges and universities, which are banned from taking political positions or supporting particular candidates or causes. Even when writing the script for the voter-registration hip-hop video at Cal Poly, “We went through this process of making sure that every single word was neutral,” Sullivan said.

    “Our legislators are going to be responsive to voting blocs they know are at the polling places.” Jared Giarrusso, associate director of government and community relations, University of California at San Francisco

    When San Francisco State University pressed its students to register and vote — buying ads that popped up on smartphones within a two-mile radius of the campus, among other measures — it had to carefully avoid appearing partisan, said Jared Giarrusso, associate director of community relations, who managed the effort.

    “We’re a state-funded institution,” Giarrusso said. “We can’t ever be perceived as favoring any campaigns, any issues, any candidates.”

    That’s fine with him, he said. “It doesn’t matter at all to me who any of our students decide to vote for. What matters is having the reputation of them voting. Our legislators are going to be responsive to voting blocs they know are at the polling places.”

    Yet so sensitive are some colleges to the perception of taking sides — and to criticism in general of ideology creeping into classrooms — that they shy away from persuading their students to vote.

    Related: College-rating proposal shines spotlight on powerful lobby

    “You see the opposite, which is colleges trying to keep their heads down, that if the legislature believes they’re trying to get out the vote, it will look like they’re trying to get out Democrats, and the legislators won’t like that,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University.

    In fact, CIRCLE research shows that, while young voters in the midterms did favor Democrats over Republicans by 55 percent to 42 percent, they were more or less evenly divided in their registered affiliations, with 37 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican and 31 percent independent.

    “College students are ideologically diverse, so if people think that getting college students to vote is a way of getting Democrats to vote, that’s mistaken,” Levine said.

    Just getting students to vote at all, however, remains a formidable challenge.

    “It’s a population that’s got a lot to complain about and isn’t organizing politically,” Levine said.

    Montclair State University in New Jersey, for example, managed to have itself declared its own voting district. “We wanted our students to be able to roll out of bed and vote,” said Shivaun Gaines, director of government relations. “But they’re still not voting.”

    Even when they do vote, they may or may not affect elections in the way colleges want. When the president of Salisbury University in Maryland sent an email to students encouraging them to register to vote, 90 signed up the same day, said Robby Sheehan, who is both the university’s director of government and community relations and interim managing director of its Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. Yet the local member of the Maryland House of Delegates who chaired the appropriations committee — a close ally of the university who Sheehan said had helped secure $200 million for new buildings — lost his reelection bid in November.

    Sheehan acknowledges that he couldn’t tell students how to cast their ballots. “I was very careful not to tell people to vote for him, but to encourage people to stay informed,” he said. “We don’t overtly go out there and say we want you to vote because of higher education. But it does underlie this.”

    In the end, he said, “As long as they’re voting, that’s all that we care about.”

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Recent Blog Posts