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Book Review - Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

posted Mar 6, 2015, 6:46 AM by Frank Fernandez   [ updated Mar 6, 2015, 6:47 AM ]

By Pamela C. Snyder, The Pennsylvania State University

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift examines the declining literacy rates and the lack of basic cognitive and communication skills demonstrated by many students who attend a variety of four-year institutions of higher education. Arum and Roksa discuss several factors that may detract from the educational experience. They suggest a multi-faceted solution aimed primarily at improving curriculum and instruction and increasing transparency and internal accountability, but they offer no solid solutions for addressing the problem at its source.

Pamela C. Snyder is a first year doctoral student in Higher Education and teaches in the College of Liberal Arts at The Pennsylvania State University. 

[Click below to download a pdf of the full review]

Is College Worth It? What Different Groups of 10th Graders Know About College

posted Jan 20, 2015, 7:56 PM by Frank Fernandez   [ updated Jan 20, 2015, 9:09 PM ]

Freire Charter School, located in the heart of Philadelphia’s Center City, is a predominantly African American high school that admits approximately 150 students by lottery each year. The school’s 2013 valedictorian, Jamal,[1] a competitive boxer who finished with a 4.0 GPA and a 27 on the ACT, placing him in the 98th percentile for African American test takers, decided to attend Dickinson College on a full academic scholarship. This was no small accomplishment: Dickinson is a very good school, then the #45 best Liberal Arts College in America according to US News and World Report. Yet when Jamal applied to several colleges, he managed to get into every school he applied to, flouting standard advice to apply to several “reach schools” – schools where his expected chances of getting in should have been much lower. In this light, this college match is disappointing for Jamal; he may have been able to attend a more prestigious school than one that accepts 40% of its applicants.

Half a mile away, down Philadelphia’s Broad Street, is Friends Select School, an elite private day school. Their 2013 top student did similarly well on the SAT, finishing in top racial percentiles with excellent grades. She went to Yale. Six miles away, in North Philadelphia, the top student at Central High School, a magnet school associated with Philadelphia Public Schools, went to Harvard. For these students, the college-senior match process worked; top students went to top schools.

While these three schools are similar in location, they vary in many other regards ranging from race, to family income, to test scores. Still, their best students, while different in several ways, are similar in that they are among the most competitive students in Philadelphia – students that the top colleges and universities in this country are actively recruiting. They are also the face of what national policymakers have taken to calling “undermatch,” the tendency of top low-income students to attend less prestigious schools that they could have attended. The matters because students who attend selective colleges are more likely to go to graduate school, earn more, and have better careers as well as becoming leaders in their field (Zhang & Thomas, 2004; Bowen & Bok, 1998). However, it is an unexpected problem; generally speaking, colleges want the best students, and the best students want the top colleges, so where and why does this matching process produce such dramatic differences? Why do similarly accomplished students apply, and therefore ultimately attend, different schools?


What We Know about Undermatching and the Relationship Between College Selectivity and Future Earnings

Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery have worked with the ACT and the College Board to look closely at how
high-achieving students across the country choose colleges. They find that the matching process fails for “a large number – probably the vast majority – of very high-achieving students from low-income families.” Hoxby and Avery call these students “income typical” students as they act in line with their income not their test scores by “not apply[ing] to a selective college or university” at all. This is in contrast to their “achievement typical” peers who apply and attend schools that match their competitiveness (Hoxby & Avery, 2012). Importantly, they find that these income-typical students could, by most measures, have attended and succeed at competitive schools at a similar rate to their achievement typical peers.

 Although interventions addressing this mismatch are in their infancy, nearly all of the solutions are targeted toward helping 12th graders make more strategic decisions when applying to colleges. The rationale is that if students are choosing to apply to the wrong set of schools, given their aptitude, then the interventions should be focused on improving the set of schools to which 12th graders choose to apply. Organizations like QuestBridge have advocated sending out information packets to prospective seniors, while Hoxby and Turner are currently evaluating the merit of a variety of different approaches to inspire income-typical students to apply to a more fitting range of schools (Hoxby & Turner, 2013).

The differences between competitive schools and less competitive schools are real. The Economist, in an article provocatively entitled “Is college worth it?,” recently observed: “Of the 153 arts degrees in the study, 46 generated a return on investment worse than plonking the money in 20-year treasury bills. Of those, 18 offered returns worse than zero.” While this sensationalist approach risks turning students off from higher education, if properly calibrated it may be a step in the right direction. This headline could be reframed as “Which colleges are worth it?” and work to push students away from a “college is college” approach (which is outlined below). Wealthier parents may be mocked for fretting over the minute differences between the 15th and 22nd best universities in the nation, but this worry is far healthier than the approach of students who let much of their tremendous potential, and hard work in high school, fall by the wayside by choosing to apply to schools that do not meet their level of competitiveness.


A Case Study on College Choice and Aspirations

As a high school teacher in Philadelphia and a recent college graduate, I was naturally drawn towards understanding how different students approached the same college application process I had gone through just a few years earlier. To better understand this I surveyed a broad sample of students in late 2013. Although rising tuition costs take up a seemingly ever increasing share of media attention, I found that nearly all students want to earn a college degree – although many of them are likely to be derailed along the way. All the tenth graders I surveyed attend rigorous college prep schools, but it still should not be taken for granted that 91% of them “would like to attend college,” while the remaining 9% responded “it depends.” None of the students I surveyed responded that they would not like to attend college in the future – a testament to the ceaseless barrage of messaging from adults everywhere: you must go to college.[2] This suggests the puzzle is not going to be solved by interventions targeted at increasing students’ predisposition to attend college. Nearly universally, students are predisposed to believe that college attendance will boost their career and lifetime opportunities.

While low income families are often nervous about the returns to college, nearly all students believe that college still provides an excellent return on investment. While many students, and parents, are unable to do the complex calculations required to estimate the actual returns on a college degree, they are often able to speculate about the typical earnings of a college graduate and a high school graduate. Many of these guesses are wildly inaccurate (for example, some students estimate that a typical graduate earns close to $200,000 while the average high school graduate earns $100,000 compared to $45,000 and $30,000, respectively). 


Who’s Ever Heard of Bowdoin College?

Last year, a Freire Student explained to me that “college is college,” that is “it doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you go somewhere. And anyone can go somewhere.” While attending college has become accepted as a good thing there is still a vexing disparity between the top and lower tier colleges. Dale and Kreuger (2002)found that attending a college that averages a 100 point higher SAT score is associated with three to eight percent higher lifetime earnings, but it has been hard to differentiate the causality.

If school quality leads to hire future earnings, why don’t low income students apply to better schools? Anecdotal evidence suggests that low income students don’t apply to more rigorous schools simply because they haven’t been exposed to them. In their daily lives students had come across big brand names schools – Harvard, Duke, Alabama – but not with smaller but excellent colleges like Amherst or Swarthmore. As one guidance counselor puts it “who’s ever heard of Bowdoin College?” (Leonhardt, 2013).

This comes across in the survey results. All students were asked to name as many colleges as they could, up to 16. The students I surveyed at the wealthier FSS and Central could name significantly more colleges than the students at Freire – including colleges like Bowdoin, Williams, and Middlebury, the three of which did not appear on a single Freire survey. Still, all students were heavily influenced by a slew of local schools. Nearly every survey mentioned at least one of Temple, Drexel, or the University of Pennsylvania alongside brand-named national research institutions like Harvard or Berkeley or athletic powerhouses like the University of Connecticut or Alabama.

How many colleges can you name?










It is not surprising that well-off students do a better job at naming schools, nor that elite private schools are more likely to send students to prestigious liberal arts colleges.

So What’s a Good SAT Score, Anyway?

Knowing that students at Freire could name fewer colleges, it is not surprising that they were less knowledgeable about the SAT and ACT than students at Friends and Central.


What is a perfect SAT or ACT score?


% of students who don’t know either

% of students who knows one

% of students who knows both















In Conclusion

What is surprising is that despite the differences in earnings that are likely to result from attending different types of colleges these groups are remarkably similar in college desires. For example, students at all three schools are just as likely[4] to report wanting to go to college, being on track for college, how often they think about college, and how often their friends talk about college. One major difference, in terms of how often students think about college, is that students at Freire are more likely to say that their parents and teachers talk about college with them.

At schools like Friere, top students “lack exposure to people who say there is a difference among colleges” (Leonhardt, 2013). While teachers push college, as one Freire student told me:

Teachers always talk about why to go to college, but they don’t really actually take the time to focus on college. Teachers tell us where to look but not what to look for. Teachers say go to college, look around, but I need a precise thing to look for. I need a precise road, a direction.

College in general is heavily pushed for, but acute differences in colleges are generally overlooked.  Although Freire is a college prep school where most graduating seniors attend college (approximately 90% attend some form of higher education and 78% of students report being “on track for college,” about the same as Central), Freire students are much less likely to report thinking that their peers are going to attend college.

And, sadly, these students are broadly right in their estimation of their peers – they are less likely to attend college or the best college that they could. Not because of their peers’ aptitude or desire but instead because guidance departments, policy makers, and researchers think about these students far too late along the college application process. To dramatically reduce undermatch and help students like Jamal, guidance counselors, teachers, and the community must work together to start a dialogue not just about going to colleges but about specific colleges. Students – especially students who lack rich social networks – need to become savvy shoppers around higher education so that by the time they reach senior year it is simply a matter of choosing between well-understood options. This can end undermatch but to do so, that process must start much earlier.

William Eger is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania.

[1] Student names have been changed to protect student confidentiality. Names will be italicized once for their first use, and then non-italicized at later uses.

[2] Interestingly, although not significantly different, students who attended the wealthier schools   were slightly more likely to say that “it depends” that students who attended Freire.

[3] The difference in schools named between Freire and Central and between Freire and FSS is significant at the 1% level, the difference between FSS and Central is significant at the 10% level.

[4] Not statistically significantly different at the 10% level


Avery, C., & Kane, T. J. (2004). Student Perceptions of College Opportunities; The Boston COACH Program. In C. Hoxby, College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay For It (pp. 355-394). http://www.nber.org/chapTERS/C/10104: University of Chicago Press.

Barrow, L., & Rouse, C. (2005). Does College Still Pay? The Economists’ Voice, 2(4).

Bowen, W., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Dale, S. B., & Krueger, A. B. (2002). Estimating the payoff to attending a more selective college: an application of selection on observables and unobservable. Quarterly Journal of Economics 117(4), 1491-1528.

Dale, S., & Krueger, A. (2011). Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data. NBER, NBER Working Paper No. 17159.

Hoxby, C., & Avery, C. (2012). The Missing "One Offs": The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students. NBER Working Paper 18586.

Hoxby, C., & Turner, S. (2013). Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students. SIEPR Discussion Paper No. 12-014.

Leonhardt, D. (2013, March 16). Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor. The New York Times, pp. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/education/scholarly-poor-often-overlook-better-colleges.html?pagewanted=all.

Surowiecki, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor.

Thomas, S., & Zhang, L. (n.d.). Post-Baccalaureate Wage Growth within Four Years of Graduation: The Effects of College Quality and College Major. Research in Higher Education, 437-459.

The Economist. (2014, April 5). Is College Worth It? The Economist, pp. http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21600131-too-many-degrees-are-waste-money-return-higher-education-would-be-much-better.

US News and World Report. (2013). Central High School. Retrieved April 18, 2014, from http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/pennsylvania/districts/the-school-district-of-philadelphia/central-high-school-17231

Wise, D. A., & Manski, C. F. (1983). College Choice in America. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


International Student Diversification and the High-Tuition High-Aid Model

posted Mar 23, 2014, 9:02 PM by Frank Fernandez   [ updated Mar 23, 2014, 9:52 PM ]

Although we typically discuss international students as one group, it is important to keep in mind that these students are not one uniform population (Levin, 2012). Students from China and students from Saudi Arabia are just as different as students from China and the United States. Institutions of higher education (IHE) must diversify their international student portfolio to stay true to the mission of diversity. In order to diversify this portfolio, the funding structure for international students must change. A common model for tuition and aid disbursement in the U.S. is the high-tuition, high-aid (HH)  model. This model is often used to execute student access and diversity missions (Curse &Singell, 2010). Unfortunately, this is often done without regard to international student diversity and access. Here I will explore the high tuition high aid (HH) model and its potential application to international students.  

The Current Application of the HH Model

Many IHEs use price discrimination in order to attract high achieving or culturally diverse students, and allow access to students who would not be capable of attending otherwise (Weisbrod, Ballou, & Asch, 2008). This is done to craft a class where the students themselves can be inputs that increase the value of the overall educational experience (Winston, 1999). Price discrimination works because students have different price elasticities, what a student is willing to pay for college. For domestic students, funding is awarded based on their expected price elasticity (Toukoushina & Paulsen, 2006). Students who can afford to pay more will often do so because they are not as price sensitive and vice versa (Curse & Singell, 2010). This principle is the foundation of the HH model.

In the HH model, the average student pays more money but this creates surplus revenue that is used to fund financial aid for students who could not afford to attend, or would choose a different IHE, otherwise. It is known that this system often does not generate enough revenue to aid all of the students that need funding: the excess funding must come from government subsidies or fund raising (Curse &Singell, 2010). IHEs with international students may submit the international student’s excess tuition dollars into the pot of money to help fund domestic students. This is typically a one-way street. International students are not usually aid eligible.

Price discrimination in higher education is a way of achieving vertical equity. This is the idea that students should be able to attend college despite their ability to pay. This idea need not be applied to solely domestic students. International students bring all of the advantages that justify price discrimination: cultural diversity (Caluya, Probyn, & Vyas, 2011); high academic aptitude (Mamiseishvili, 2012); and, potentially, economically diverse students (Aw, 2012).  International students should not be “cash cows” used to produce revenue for domestic students (Caluya et al., 2011). They are actually valuable inputs that can enrich the student experience. Perhaps these students should be funded accordingly.

Mission of Diversification: Application to Types of IHEs

The decision to fund international students would be heavily dependent on the mission of the school. It is known that IHEs are constantly trying to balance their mission and their finances, this is known as the two-good framework.  The mission of an institution often depends on the type of school and the source of their funding (Weisbrod, Ballou, & Asch, 2008). Public schools tend to have their mission focus on students from their own geographic area, so they may not be able to implement a model such as this. However, many private institution’s missions do not specify that they are to serve only domestic students. In fact, many scholars believe that the mission of an IHEs goes beyond borders (Aw, 2012).  In addition, in 2011, 50% of institutions said that their missions include international or global education (CIGE, 2012). Schools who believe this should not depend on international students to pay the way of domestic students; instead they should work to ensure access to international students the same way they ensure access to domestic students.  This means attempting vertical equity for international students as well. Unfortunately, while some schools may be attempting to implement similar plans for international students, many are not. The international HH model is a way to do exactly this.

A New HH Model: The International HH Model

A model that supports international students would have to put international and domestic student tuition into two separate pots, domestic and international.  International revenue would no longer be used to supplement domestic students, but rather to supplement international students from developing countries that could not afford U.S. tuition just yet. As the elasticity of the students from different countries changes so too would the cost of tuition for these students. For example, Chinese students could subsidize the tuition of Indonesian students for a few years. When the Indonesian economy picks up, the Indonesian students could help subsidize the new developing nation’s students; this cycle could continue. The most qualified applicants from all over the world would be able to attend, not just the most qualified applicants from the richest countries. This could apply to economic diversity within countries as well. Scholars and practitioners have long lamented the fact that the U.S. only educates the young elites of other countries (Aw, 2012).  The application of this model could help to correct this, by funding less wealthy students.

By examining the present HH model one can see that international students are often used as “cash cows” to add to domestic student funding (Caluya et al., 2011). Presently, the HH model does not account for the need to diversify international students, but it could. Diversifying international students would stay true to the mission of diversity and access in a global sense. This is something we should be moving toward in an increasingly globalized world.

Tiffany Viggiano is a first year graduate student in Higher Education Administration and Policy at the University of California, Riverside. Using her Anthropology background, Tiffany hopes that her research will internationalize higher education as a way of bringing greater diversity to the community college. She has received numerous academic honors, including the Chancellors Distinguished Fellowship, and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. in Anthropology last year.


Aw, F. (2012). The International Student Question: 45 Years Later. Journal of College Admission, (214), 10–11.

Caluya, G., Probyn, E., & Vyas, S. (2011). “Affective Eduscapes”: The Case of Indian Students within Australian International Higher Education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(1), 85–99.

Center for International and Global Engagement (CIGE). (2012). Mapping Internationalization on U.S Campuses. American Council on Education.

Curs, B. R., & Singell, L. D. J. (2010). Aim High or Go Low? Pricing Strategies and Enrollment Effects When the Net Price Elasticity Varies with Need and Ability. Journal of Higher Education, 81(4), 515–543.

Levin, John S.. Understanding the Community Colleges. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Mamiseishvili, K. (2012). International student persistence in U.S. postsecondary institutions. Higher Education, 64(1), 1–17. doi:10.1007/s10734-011-9477-0

Toukoushian, R. K., & Paulsen, M. B. (2006). Applying Economics to Institutional Research. New Directions for Institutional Research No. 132. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weisbrod, B. A., Ballou, J. P., & Asch, E. D. (2008). Mission Money: Understanding the University. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Winston, G. (1999). Subsidies, hierarchy and peers: the awkward economics of higher education. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 13(1), 13-36.


Affirmative Action as a Precarious Value

posted Nov 8, 2013, 12:10 AM by Frank Fernandez   [ updated Nov 8, 2013, 1:34 AM ]

By Frank Fernandez, The Pennsylvania State University

“Institutions which one generation regards as only a makeshift approximation to the realization of a principle, the next generation honors as the nearest possible approximation to that principle, and the next worships as the principle itself.  It takes scarcely three generations for the apotheosis.  The grandson accepts his grandfather’s hesitating experiment as an integral part of the fixed constitution of nature.” 

-          Woodrow Wilson (1887, p. 209)

When we look around us, we take for granted the battles fought by previous generations.  As Woodrow Wilson wrote, cautious gains become ubiquitous with time.  Women’s suffrage, Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, Title IX and female sports—each of these was once a radical proposition, vehemently opposed.  Why does affirmative action buck this trend?  Why is it that instead of growing more sacred with time, affirmative action is repeatedly attacked (first in Bakke, then Grutter, and now Fisher—not to mention state bans such as California’s Proposition 209 and Michigan’s Proposal 2)? America is still plagued with inequality and intolerance, but the question remains, why have some efforts toward equality been more accepted than others?

Historically speaking, selective admissions processes were created as a means for exclusion (see Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton).  Americans’ demand for access to higher education grew faster than colleges and universities could bear, so more and more colleges formalized selective admissions procedures.  This has led to what David Labaree has characterized as the Groucho Marx complex; like Marx, many prospective students “don’t want to belong to any club [university] that would accept me [them] as one of its members.”  (In the recent Fisher v. University of Texas case, Abigail Noel Fisher was unsatisfied with her acceptance to Louisiana State University.)  Part of the problem is that because of competitive admissions processes, some people see affirmative action as rigging a zero-sum game. 

Still, this doesn’t fully answer why affirmative action has not been enshrined as a hallowed American institution.  We love when men like Barack Obama and Ted Cruz live out the American dream, rising from humble beginnings to attend some of the nation’s most selective universities and become leaders of society; however, we vacillate in our commitment to policies that can make real-life Horatio Alger stories more a rule than an exception.

We know that values can change over time otherwise there would never be social progress.  But we don’t often think about what makes some values stronger than others.  Burton Clark’s writing offers a way to think through this problem.  Clark argues that social values are precarious when they are not articulated in stakeholders’ goals or standards.  He also finds that values are precarious when they are seen as belonging to smaller groups and are not accepted by the larger “host” population. 

Secure values, then, are those that are clearly defined in behavior and strongly established in the minds of many.  Such values literally take care of themselves.  Precarious values, on the other hand, need deliberately intentioned agents, for they must be normatively defined, or socially established, or both. (pp. 8-9)

The overwhelming consensus of social science research* shows that affirmative action has social and academic benefits for majority students—the classmates of minority students.  Although affirmative action has many intentional agents, I would argue that the idea that affirmative action benefits everyone has not been “strongly established in the minds of many.” 

Moving forward we must continue to normatively define and socially establish support for affirmative action.  We must continue to find—and more importantly publicize—evidence that shows the benefits of affirmative action.  Too often, evaluation metrics do not account for ethnic or socioeconomic diversity in university admissions.  Diversity is not, but could easily be, included in the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings and other popular sources that are accessible to students and their parents (and valued by institutions).  Special efforts should be taken in “new destination” states and areas that are becoming more ethnically diverse so that they do not adopt reactionary affirmative action bans as others have before them. 

It has been said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  There was a day when women were not allowed in the academy, but two centuries later women outnumber men in American higher education.  I am optimistic that America’s colleges and universities will be diverse and dynamic learning environments, but only if we are defenders of diversity and strengthen the precarious value of affirmative action. 


Frank Fernandez is a PhD Candidate in Higher Education and Research Assistant at Penn State's  Center for the Study of Higher Education. 

*For summaries of social science research see:

Brief for American Social Science Researchers as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondents, Fisher v. University of Texas, 570 U.S. ___(2013) (no. 11-345). Retrieved from https://www.utexas.edu/vp/irla/Documents/ACR%20American%20Social%20Science%20Researchers.pdf

Brief for Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondents, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (no. 12-682). Retrieved from http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v2/12-682_resp_amcu_crp-etal.authcheckdam.pdf

Garces, L. M. Social science research and the courts: Informing post-Grutter v. Bollinger developments in higher education cases. Educational Policy, 27(4), 591-614. Retrieved from http://epx.sagepub.com/content/27/4/591.full.pdf



Clark, B. (2008). On Higher Education: Selected Writings: 1956-2006. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Wilson, W. (1887). The study of administration. Political science quarterly, 2(2), 197-222.

The Difficulty in Data: A Look at How Used Car Lots Can Help to Explain Challenges Facing Obama’s College Ratings System

posted Sep 23, 2013, 7:14 PM by Frank Fernandez   [ updated Jan 16, 2015, 2:51 PM by Azalea Hulbert ]

By Justin Ortagus, The Pennsylvania State University

President Obama recently unveiled a plan that would tie federal aid to a college ratings system. The fact sheet provided by the White House outlines the general plan to rate higher education institutions based on the following performance measures:

  • Access (number of students receiving Pell grants)
  • Affordability (average tuition, scholarships, and student loan debt)
  • Student Outcomes (graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of graduates)

Although it’s far too early to label Obama’s college ratings proposal a patent failure or success, one fact is unavoidable: the magic is in the metrics. In order to add insight and explicate concerns pertaining to the college ratings system, I will examine select challenges through the lens of a used car lot.

Perceptions of Prestige

Why does a BMW typically cost more than a Toyota? Consumers pay a premium for the perception of prestige. Since most people don’t profess to be automotive experts, we often rely on the sticker price to serve as an informal indicator of a car’s quality. Colleges and universities work in a similar way. Even if an institution’s U.S. News & World Report ranking drops, its tuition usually increases for the same reason consumers pay a premium for luxury cars: the price of a product is viewed as an informal indicator of its quality. To lower tuition would be to signify a drop in academic quality. Since Obama’s college ratings system is intended to assess value and inform policy, it should be distinct from U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. Despite claims to the contrary, the general college ratings plan proposed by the White House has metrics that overlap with U.S. News & World Report’s rankings data and could serve to offer further advantages for already advantaged institutions.

Sticker Price vs. Net Price

Each college or university, much like a used car, has a sticker price. When consumers enter a used car lot, they often negotiate the sticker price and end up paying a net amount much lower than the advertised price. For low-income students, tuition represents a sticker price that should mean little when considering the net cost of higher education. Specifically, elite higher education institutions with large endowments would be able to offer more generous student aid packages in order to skim from the highest achieving low-income students and subsequently improve their college rating.

The manner by which the college ratings plan evaluates affordability has yet to be explained in detail, but distinctions between sticker price and net price complicate the issue and make it increasingly difficult to evaluate institutions with wide variations in the size of their endowment. Although the college ratings system is advertised as a boost to higher education institutions willing to promote innovation or cut the price of tuition, decreases in state funding have forced many effective non-elites to rely upon tuition in order to survive. The (yet-to-be-released) details of these data are paramount in determining the effectiveness of the college ratings plan.

Deceptive Practices

The pay structure of a used car salesman incentivizes the optimization of net profit by any means necessary. Since the customer’s best interest is not aligned with the salesman’s ability to acquire resources, deceptive practices often occur. Undesirable behaviors are typically explained by the reward structures in place. A variety of reward systems have been found to incentivize certain behaviors despite hoping for an alternative behavior. In higher education, high stakes college rankings offer incentive for colleges and universities to provide misleading data in order to improve their annual ranking. For instance, Emory University recently disclosed its consistent misreporting of institutional data. In hopes of achieving a higher ranking, the admissions and institutional research offices at Emory exaggerated the average SAT and ACT scores of its students. Additionally, several law schools have faced legal action in response to misleading claims and statistics related to graduates’ job placement, average student debt, and average salary.

The reasoning for altered data is simple: higher education institutions in question are dependent on the resources associated with improved performance. Since Obama’s college ratings system could dictate federal aid and indirectly affect enrollment patterns, it would have considerable power over many higher education institutions. When tied with critical resources, the power associated with a college ratings system has the ability to force an institution to do something it wouldn’t do under different circumstances. As a result, regulation measures of reported institutional data are paramount when considering future legislation pertaining to tying federal resources to college ratings.

The Task at Hand

Simply put, the devil is in the details. Many would agree with those who claim the current financial model in higher education is unsustainable, but it’s important to think critically about challenges and implications associated with metrics to be used when rating colleges and universities. While the promotion of innovation in higher education appears to be a positive development, several questions related to federal performance funding remain underdeveloped or completely unaddressed.

Justin Ortagus is a Ph.D. candidate in the Higher Education Program at the Pennsylvania State University. He received his B.A. in English and M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida. Justin's research interests revolve around issues related to college rankings, online education, and the cost crisis in higher education. He currently works with Dr. John Cheslock and Dr. Fred Loomis as a graduate assistant for Penn State's  graduate certificate program in Institutional Research.

Book Review - Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student

posted Sep 6, 2013, 9:32 AM by Frank Fernandez   [ updated Sep 23, 2013, 8:38 PM ]

By Shelley Errington Nicholson, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Generation on a tightrope: A portrait of today’s college student is reviewed in an attempt
to synthesize themes relevant to higher education practitioners. This book review examines the
third volume dedicated to deconstructing the attitudes of a particular generation of college
students. This review highlights the author’s success in creating a readable and useful text for
working with current or previous generations of college students.

Shelly Errington Nicholson is currently a second year doctoral student in Educational Policy and Leadership at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Shelley has worked at several institutions including Rice University and the University of Edinburgh. Shelley is the co-editor of the text Empowering Women in Higher Education and Student Affairs: Theory, Research, Narratives and Practice from Feminist Perspectives.

[Click below to download a pdf of the full review]

Call for online content

posted Aug 25, 2013, 2:28 PM by Frank Fernandez   [ updated Nov 8, 2013, 1:24 AM ]

Higher Education in Review (HER) invites submissions for content to be featured on the Higher Education in Review-Online (HER-O) website: www.higheredinreview.org

Proposed content should fall into one of two categories:

Book reviews should focus on books published in the past three years, which are relevant to higher education. (Reviews of older books may be accepted if the author can justify why a review in HER would be timely and a good fit for the journal.) Book reviews are important contributions to communities of scholars and practitioners in higher education. They inform readers about current advances in the field and encourage productive discourse.

Scholarly contributions that will be considered include: essays, thought pieces, editorials, discussions of current events, responses to other publications, and reflective pieces about professional experiences—either as researchers, academics, graduate students, or practitioners. These pieces are meant to facilitate discussion about societal and political issues in higher education.

Click here to download the full call for web submissions. 

Coursera: A Revolution, Devolution, or Mad Experiment?

posted Aug 30, 2012, 6:39 PM by Jessica Bennett

by Jessica Bennett, Associate Editor for Digital Content

It seems to me that Coursera is everywhere in higher education news and opinion pieces recently (see the embedded links throughout the piece), so I thought I’d use the inaugural post of the Higher Education in Review News RoundUp to provide a primer on Coursera, its Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and some of the controversies and questions surrounding them..

Coursera, a self-labeled social entrepreneurial company, seeks to provide course content from faculty at top universities to any and all that are interested (see Coursera’s Vision).  Additionally, its courses are designed around five pedagogical foundations – the value of online learning,  the role of homework to aid in knowledge retention and learning, repeated opportunities to master content in assessments, the use of peer evaluations in assessments to provide varied and quick feedback, and the opportunity to actively engage material and each other online through multiple formats (see Coursera’s Pedagogical Foundations).  Coursera is free, and allows for varied levels of engagement.  Students who participate fully in a course (completing all assignments and quizzes) may receive documentation of participation from the faculty instructors.

All this sounds amazing.  Take the best courses that elite institutions have to offer and make them available to anyone, for free. Allow students to participate at varying levels of intensity. Engage in asynchronous education that increases flexibility for students. In fact, it sounds so amazing that as of early August, Coursera reached a cumulative enrollment of over1 million students (see Inside HigherEd).

The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman hails Coursera as the most important experiment in higher education.  Weissman argues that the embrace of Coursera by elite institutions means that, via institutional isomorphic mechanisms, others will quickly be following suit.  Coursera’s real promise, he argues, lies in its ability to revolutionize the delivery of lectures, by offering a well-designed, sleek platform that allow institutions to side-step the costly creation of course-delivery user interfaces. 

Leaders seem to be agreeing. In a recent interview with Inside HigherEd, University of Virginia President Theresa Sullivan highlighted the benefits that a collaboration with Coursera provides to professors on-Grounds.  She suggests that the participating institutions have found that their residential students have an improved experience in both individual courses as well as the dividends provided to those who care about learning about how students learn.  Coursera, she argues, is an invaluable resource to those seeking to better understand student learning in an online context.

So what does Coursera have to offer residential students?  By freeing class time that might usually be taken up with introducing basic content material, university instructors are free to introduce more discussion, group work, and other proven learning-enhancing active learning activities.  The idea of “flipping” the classroom is growing in both the K-12 and higher education sectors, with some educators arguing that using class time for homework, problem solving, and discussion, and home time for basic content delivery, is a better use of educator’s time.

What about non-residential students, or the million people who have signed up for Coursera classes without being affiliated with one of its content providing universities?  These students are eligible for a letter of certification, which could possibly be used in an employment setting or other area to prove familiarity with given content matter.  However, Coursera students do not receive credit for their participation (except perhaps at the University of Washington).  For students seeking to learn for the sake of learning, this arrangement is likely sufficient.  However, despite its promise of open access, the question remains whether MOOCs and the Coursera format really offer a viable alternative.  Some have suggested that third party universities be used to credential students taking Coursera courses –  getting a Harvard education with a Small State College diploma.

Inside HigherEd’s Carlo Salerno doubts that Coursera and its ilk can properly provide what institutions of higher education and their potential consumers (students) are seeking.  Highlighting the role that prestige plays in Coursera’s current model, he argues that  institutions will not be motivated to offer credit to students in these courses because the open access prevents quality control of students, while students will be loathe to pay for credits at third-party institutions if they are not receiving credentials from the top tier institutions with which they are taking classes.

In addition, others raise the question of whether content delivered to several thousand students by a single prestigious university professor is really the equivalent of taking the course with that professor in residence.  The founders of Coursera suggest that, in effect, the essence of a Harvard or Stanford education lie in the on-campus experience of interaction with those students and faculty.  Additionally, while Coursera has developed a mechanism to allow quick feedback to all students via a peer-evaluation system, some question whether the feedback is sufficiently substantive or helpful. 

Finally, with all the attention focused on the MOOC format, some are perhaps painting too wide a stroke in discussing online learning. Mark Edmundson, professor at the University of Virginia and frequent commentator on issues of learning in higher education, delivers a scathing attack on online education – but seems to only be describing MOOCs.  See a fine response to Edmundson from Joshua Kim here

All this raises several questions that I’ll leave our readers to ponder: If institutions like Virginia hope to learn from their experiences with MOOCs, what should those lessons be given that most online course delivery that results in income generation requires a more focused approach (see Kim’s response, and Penn State’s World Campus as a specific example)?    How do sites like Coursera fit into the debate about college access for all?  What do Coursera and its students have to tell us about the credentialing function arguments about higher education?  With this version of online, private education sidestepping many of the critiques that institutions such as the University of Phoenix face, how should this change our discussion about online education in our higher ed programs?

Reform Comes to Higher Education

posted Jul 17, 2012, 6:57 AM by Travis York

An interesting piece in the Huffington Post about the purpose of higher education.  For Jackie Jenkins-Smith, President of Wheelock College, that purpose is educational opportunity.  It seems that the topic of higher education's purpose is constantly debated, and perhaps that is a good thing.   Unquestionably the issue of educational opportunity is a part of this debate and Jenkins-Smith nicely points out that, "While there are no quick, simple solutions, part of the answer lies in understanding how current -- and future -- generations of college bound students will acquire usable knowledge and skills." As tuition costs rise, educational opportunity decreases- how should those of us working in higher education address this issue?

Do Colleges Overlook Low-Income Students?

posted May 25, 2011, 10:52 AM by Jared Rodrigues

This piece from the New York Times (free) poses some interesting questions about whether top colleges are doing enough to recruit low-income students.  I'd invite any thoughts or opinions on the piece or whether all colleges should be doing more to combat the over representation of affluent students on our campuses.

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