Varied views on college control

PAUL SMITHS – U.S. Rep. Bill Owens says the federal government is “maybe overreaching” with a proposal to pressure colleges into being more affordable.

The Democrat from Plattsburgh was at Paul Smith’s College on Thursday, the same day President Obama announced his plan at the University at Buffalo.

Obama proposed having the Education Department rate colleges on their affordability as well as student success, using data such as graduation and transfer rates, graduates’ incomes and how many go on to earn advanced degrees. These ratings would then be tied to federal aid. Students at better-rated schools could get cheaper loans or bigger grants, while aid might be cut off for schools that aren’t controlling costs, delivering quality education or opening their doors wide enough for low- and middle-income students.

“My first reaction to it is, I’m all for providing the information to people,” Owens said. “I’m less sure I want to see it regulated by the government.”

Paul Smith’s College President John Mills, interviewed earlier, was generally in favor of the president’s plan.

“The devil’s in the details,” Mills said. “But the framework is correct.

“Tying the aid that a student can get (to) the school they’re going to because of the outcomes of that school, that is absolutely revolutionary.”

His school would likely do well: It’s less expensive than most private universities, its mission is to educate the lower and middle classes, and it leans toward skills-based degrees like cooking, forestry and hospitality management, which are more measurable for job competency than, say, liberal arts.

Owens Q&A

Students, reporters and college officials questioned Owens Thursday about ways the federal government might intervene in higher education.

“What is the government doing to prevent higher ed institutions from raising their tuition prices?” Jullian Phipps, a hotel, resort and tourism management major from New York City, asked Owens.

The congressman said he’s not sure the federal government should regulate tuition. Rather, he said, it should expand Pell grants and student loans.

“Then the government is not directly intervening into the relationship between the student and the school,” Owens said.

Rebekah Kruppenbacher, a hotel, resort and tourism management major from near Saratoga Springs, asked Owens whether financial aid could expand to help a family like hers: white, parents still married, middle class but not wealthy enough to afford all five children’s college tuition.

“The only way that happens is if you expand the dollars in the Pell program,” Owens said, “because it wouldn’t be quite as narrowly need-based.

“But I honestly – I don’t want to mislead you – I do not see Congress providing more dollars in those systems.”

Merit vs. need

Kruppenbacher also asked whether financial aid could be tied to grades so public funds aren’t wasted on students who aren’t serious about school.

“Do you cut financial aid off at what point?” Owens asked her. “Is it at 2.0? Is it at 1.75 GPA? … It’s a good idea; I’m just not sure how you implement it.”

Mills opted out of the discussion so students would speak more freely with Owens, but earlier he told the Enterprise that merit vs. need is one of the biggest debates in higher education today for schools’ own scholarships and grants.

“In some cases I feel it’s completely inappropriate the amount of merit aid that goes out to people who can afford to pay,” Mills said. “At Paul Smith’s College we can document that we do give scholarships based on a student’s academic qualifications, but we first base it on their need. So we can show that this year approximately 7 to 8 cents of every scholarship dollar is merit, and the rest is need, and I’m pleased to say I’ve been able to bring that down over the last few years from 15 cents. … Some schools are 50 to 60 percent merit.”

Competency-based learning

One thing Mills said he didn’t like about the president’s proposal was that it would factor in graduation rates. That might penalize Paul Smith’s, at which he said more than half the students are the first generation in their families to attend college.

“The data’s clear: Needy students who come from first-generation families, and therefore probably from poorer high schools, have a lower graduation rate due to their risk factors,” Mills said.

“Some schools may have what look like poorer outcomes than another school, but it may be that school’s helping more lower-income, lower-ability students.”

The Paul Smith’s College president is a big fan of “competency-based” or “skills-based” learning, as are Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. Obama’s plan would rate colleges based on “outcomes” – measurable proof of student learning and success. Mills said that’s where higher education has to go.

“It’s not necessarily how much time you spend in class; it’s what you learn,” he added. “We have argued that at Paul Smith’s for years – that it shouldn’t be a simple credit-hour accumulation.

“Tying that to financial aid is critical because if the school is going to fail at demonstrating learning, why should they get financial aid from the taxpayer?” Mills said.

The idea is that a student should get the same financial aid for a course whether he or she completes it early, late or in the time allotted.

“In higher education, time is always the enemy,” Mills said. “You do a semester. You do 15 weeks. You do three hours a week in a class. Everything’s boxed into a time factor, and I think with competency-based learning, skill-based learning, we can take time out of it, and we can have students excel faster if they’re good enough. And if other students need more time but they’re still going to learn it, why can’t they learn it?”

Western Governors University is an online institution with a competency-based curriculum that both Mills and Obama praised Thursday.

“There are some students who completed the baccalaureate in 18 months,” Mills said of WGU. “There are some that completed it in six years. The one who did 18 months didn’t fail a course; the one who did six years didn’t fail a course. They both got their outcome, right? And they learned the same thing.”

Mills admits this learn-at-your-own-pace model works better online than in person, since a school can’t afford enough faculty to teach students individually. Nevertheless, “The old method is going away except for some colleges that will stick to it. I mean, Harvard can always do the old way. I think a lot of schools are going to have to find new ways.”

Many won’t make the transition, Mills guesses.

“Moody’s is predicting about 200 private colleges will close by 2020,” he said. “It’s a pin drop in the sea of private colleges, but of course each one of those is a multi-million-dollar economic engine for the communities they’re in.”

In the 2011-12 school year the U.S. had 4,706 colleges, a number that has steadily increased over the years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those schools, 3,057 were private and 1,649 public, 2,968 four-year and 1,738 two-year.

What about liberal arts?

A school like Paul Smith’s, by nature of its majors, already has more concrete assessments of undergraduate learning than a liberal arts college does. Thus a national debate is heating up over whether the Obama administration’s preference for skills-based learning would gut the humanities.

“My point is that’s a misplaced fear because all you have to do is demonstrate learning,” Mills said. “I mean, if you’re an English major, you’ve got to write something.”

Mills said he recently argued this point in a Facebook comment on National Public Radio’s “On Point” call-in show.

“The humanities people were calling in and saying, ‘Well, the problem is they expect us to be able to do skills, but the humanities really teach us to think and to write.’ So I (commented) and said, ‘This is a ridiculous argument because at Paul Smith’s College, we also have to teach our kids to think and write – because a surveyor who presents to a town board has to be able to communicate, has to give a written document on the surveying stuff.’

“Even in the liberal arts and sciences schools, they’re trying to defend against something that they really could do very well.”