↳ Higher+education

June 25th, 2020

↳ Higher+education

Declining Access, Rising Cost: The Geography of Higher Education Post-2008

Mapping concentration and prices in the US higher education industry

During and after the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was slashed as part of state budget austerity. Staff and programs were cut and tuition rose; in many states, even by 2018, funding had not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, enrollment soared. As students locked out of a slack labor market were told they “lacked the skills necessary for today’s jobs,” the solution to unemployment and wage stagnation was to be found in more degrees at higher prices. The result was the acceleration of what is now a four or five-decade trend in US higher education: the replacement of a public good model with a private consumer model, dependent on tuition financed with federal debt, all justified on the back of supposed earnings increases that fail to materialize.

With skyrocketing prices and ballooning student debt, the private for-profit model has taken hold in even traditional schools, which are seeking to cut teaching costs while retaining students and their hefty tuition payments. Even leaving aside the possible collapse of tuition revenues from nonattendance, forecasts for state budget cuts coming out of the Covid-19 recession are alarming—unless the patterns of the Great Recession are avoided, we can abandon hope of a more equitable, inclusive, or expansive higher education landscape into the 2020s.

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December 20th, 2019

Renegotiating Education

Caitlin Zaloom's ethnography of the American higher ed crisis

Indebted is anthropologist and NYU Professor Caitlin Zaloom’s deep dive into the middle-class American family’s struggle to solve the college cost puzzle. Its animating question: How can middle-class families maintain their status and provide their children with as much opportunity as possible? And do so while facing stagnant wages, structural racism, rising inequality, limited savings, weakening safety nets, labyrinthine financial aid paperwork, and surging costs for housing, healthcare, and education? Through interviews with students and families, Zaloom reveals the brokenness of what she terms the “student finance complex”—the web of private, direct, or Federal loans mixed with grants and scholarships—and connects these particular struggles to the broader failures of mainstream economic theory. The book urges readers to rethink the current system of higher education finance, and look to feminist economics and social reproduction theory for a better way to think about education and the economy.

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December 18th, 2019

Unequal and Uneven: The Geography of Higher Education Access

Mapping market concentration in the higher education industry

In much of the existing higher education literature, “college access” is understood in terms of pre-college educational attainment, social and informational networks, and financial capacity, both for tuition and living expenses. The US ranks highly on initial college access by comparison with other countries, but this access—along with all major metrics of college success, including completion rates, default rates, and debt-to-income ratios—exhibits drastic inequality along familiar lines of race, gender, class, and geography.

Along with other pernicious myths, the media stereotype of the college student often figures undergraduates traveling far from home to live in a dorm on a leafy campus. The reality is far from the case: over 50% of students enrolled in four-year public college do so close to their home. This means that the geography of higher ed institutions strongly determines the options available to a given student. While much higher education policy discourse justly attempts to improve students’ access to information on school costs, financial aid information, completion rates, or post-graduation employment statistics to inform their school choices, political attention to geographic access remains overlooked.

Previous research on the geography of higher ed has simply reported the number of institutions in a given area. But the raw number of schools is ambiguous, as it fails to account for enrollment. We wanted to complicate the picture: given the uneven distribution of higher ed institutions and institution types—public and private non-profits, as well as for-profits of all kinds—around the country, we wanted to examine what role market concentration might play in a higher education industry increasingly characterized by a wide divide between elite institutions and the landscape of what Tressie McMillan Cottom has termed "Lower Ed." Starting from the perspective that many students are not going to travel long distances to be in residence full time at a leafy campus, how many options are they realistically looking at? And what’s the relationship between concentration, disparities on the basis of race, class, and geography, institutions’ resulting market power, and college cost, debt loads, and post-graduate earnings?

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July 18th, 2019

Student Debt & Racial Wealth Inequality

How student debt cancellation affects the racial wealth gap

The effect of cancelling student debt on various measures of individual and group-level inequality has been a matter of controversy, especially given presidential candidates’ recent and high-profile proposals to eliminate outstanding student debt. In this work, I attempt to shed light on the policy counterfactual by analyzing the Survey of Consumer Finances for 2016, the most recent nationally-representative dataset that gives a picture of the demographics of student debt.

When we test the effects of cancelling student debt on the racial wealth gap, we conclude that across all samples, across all quantiles, the racial wealth gap narrows when student debt is cancelled, and it narrows more the more student debt is cancelled.

With respect to the two presidential candidates’ plans, this means that the Sanders plan, completely eliminating outstanding student debt, reduces racial wealth inequality more than does the Warren plan, which only forgives $50,000 of debt, and phases that out for high earners. But the difference between the two plans as measured by the reduction in the racial wealth gap is not large. It would be fair to say that the Warren plan achieves the vast majority of the racial wealth equity gains that the Sanders plan achieves, while leaving the student debt held by the highest-income borrowers intact.

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July 8th, 2019

Model of a Cabin

SELECTED MOBILITY

Examining the college premium

Higher education is widely understood to be a major driver of intergenerational mobility in the United States. Despite the clear (and growing) inequalities between and within colleges, it remains the case that higher education reduces the impact that parental class position has on a graduate's life outcomes.

In an intriguing paper, associate professor of economics at Harvard XIANG ZHOU scrutinizes the implied causal relationship between college completion and intergenerational mobility. Specifically, Zhou uses a novel weighting method "to directly examine whether and to what extent a college degree moderates the influence of parental income" outside of selection effects, seeking to distinguish between the "equalization" and "selection" hypotheses of higher ed's impact on intergenerational mobility.

From the paper:

"Three decades have passed since Hout’s (1988) discovery that intergenerational mobility is higher among college graduates than among people with lower levels of education. In light of this finding, many researchers have portrayed a college degree as 'the great equalizer' that levels the playing field, and hypothesized that an expansion in postsecondary education could promote mobility because more people would benefit from the high mobility experienced by college graduates. Yet this line of reasoning rests on the implicit assumption that the 'college premium' in intergenerational mobility reflects a genuine 'meritocratic' effect of postsecondary education, an assumption that has rarely, if ever, been rigorously tested.

In fact, to the extent that college graduates from low and moderate-income families are more selected on such individual attributes as ability and motivation than those from high-income families, the high mobility observed among bachelor’s degree holders may simply reflect varying degrees of selectivity of college graduates from different family backgrounds."

In sum, Zhou finds that the "selection" hypothesis carries more weight than the "equalization" hypothesis. One implication of this finding is that "simply expanding the pool of college graduates is unlikely to boost intergenerational income mobility in the US." Link to the paper.

  • A 2011 paper by Michael Bastedo and Ozan Jaquette looks at the stratification dynamics affecting low-income students within higher ed. Link. A paper from the same year by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski surveys the state of inequality in postsecondary education. Link.
  • An op-ed by E. Tammy Kim in the Times argues for higher-education as a public good. Link.
  • Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan's 2018 paper examines the student debt crisis in the broader context of labor market trends: "Reliance on the college earnings premium [as a measure of success] is that it focuses primarily on the individual benefit of educational attainment, implying that college is worthwhile as long as individuals are making more than they would have otherwise. But in the context of public investment in higher education, we need to know not only how individuals are faring but also how investments in higher education are affecting our workforce and the economy as a whole." Link.
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May 20th, 2019

Flower Meadow in the North

TANGLED PATHS

First steps to mapping the non-Title-IV education landscape

Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 permits certain postsecondary institutions to be eligible for federal financial aid funds. A wide variety of programs are Title IV eligible: public, private, for-profit, vocational. Yet there are also a vast number of non-Title-IV (NT4) programs, offering credentials, certifications, and various forms of training—and neither the Department of Education, nor any other body, collects unified data on all these programs. How many students attend them? What subjects are they learning? What are their outcomes?

There's only been one recent paper that's made a serious attempt to understand the scale of NT4 programs. In a 2012 working paper, Stephanie Cellini and Claudia Goldin calculated that NT4 institutions educate 27% of students enrolled in for-profit institutions each year (670,000 enrollments).

A 2017 paper by Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzweil for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences attempts to map the alternative postsecondary landscape, including "certificate programs; work-based training; skills-based short courses; MOOCs; and competency-based education programs." That paper finds that these programs are growing:

“While each of these alternatives has roots that reach back decades if not longer, for a number of reasons, alternatives have increased in size, diversity, and importance in recent years, and are likely to continue to grow. Though the length and cost of alternative programs vary, most last for less than two years and cost significantly less than a four-year degree, the cost of which continues to rise rapidly… A characteristic feature of all the programs discussed is their flexibility to align directly with specific employer needs and competencies in skill-based fields. Despite these reasons for their appeal and likely growth, evidence of the efficacy and value of these alternatives—for students and taxpayers—is still thin.”

As the debate over the skills gap continues and the cost of college soars, the obscurity in which these programs operate becomes increasingly untenable. Link to that paper.

  • Brown and Kurzweil work includes three recommendations for policymakers, including recommendations to create a robust data system and quality assurance scheme. George Washington University has just launched the Non-Degree Credential Network project to begin building out research and data. Link.
  • Andrew Reamer's 2018 list of credential info aggregators brings into relief the diversity of the programs as well as the chaotic state of the information about them. Link.
  • In a March letter, we featured work by Xu and Trimble on a closely related topic: what are the outcomes of students who participate in certificate programs? Link to that letter, link to their paper.
  • A 2016 paper by Santa Falcone examines US certificate programs at Title IV schools from 1980-2013, and includes some relevant education history: "This growth period [1870-1910] also brought into existence private, external, independent university ratings agencies. These agencies successfully used coercion and incentives on higher education institutions to develop more standardized admissions, instruction, and accreditation criteria to counter the lack of any existing academic standards." Link.
  • A 2013 paper by Rosenbaum and Rosenbaum covers occupational colleges and certificate programs (with, again, a focus on Title IV institutions). Link.
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March 30th, 2019

Place Distant Place

VERIFY ACCESS

Recruitment strategies and representation at public research universities

Public research universities have long been understood as engines of meritocratic social mobility. Relative to other higher ed institutions, public universities remain those with the highest mobility rates. But research over the past decade has shown that these institutions are failing to represent the diversity of their state populations, and adoptingfinancial aid models that cater to the wealthy.

A new report co-authored by CRYSTAL HAN, OZAN JAQUETTE, and KARINA SALAZAR looks at one mechanism behind this trend. Analyzing off-campus recruitment events, it finds that public research universities prioritize recruiting out-of-state students from wealthy, white, urban communities over all others:

"In contrast to rhetoric from university leaders, our findings suggest strong socioeconomic and racial biases in the enrollment priorities of many public research universities. A small number of universities exhibit recruiting patterns broadly consistent with the historical mission of social mobility for meritorious state residents. However, most universities concentrated recruiting visits in wealthy, out-of-state communities while also privileging affluent schools in in-state visits. Although most universities did not exhibit racial bias in in state visits, out-of-state visits consistently exhibited racial bias. Since most universities made many more out-of-state visits than in-state visits, overall recruiting visit patterns for most universities contribute to a student composition where low-income students of color feel increasingly isolated amongst growing cohorts of affluent, predominantly White, out-of-state students. These recruiting patterns and enrollment priorities are a function of a broken system of state higher education finance, which incentivizes universities to prioritize rich out-of-state students with lack-luster academic achievement."

Link to the report.

  • The report includes contextual background on the "enrollment management" industry, which advises universities on strategic admissions and recruitment strategies to improve their financial and ranking standings: "While scholarship and policy debate about college access focuses on the final stages of the enrollment funnel—when applicants are admitted and financial aid 'leveraging' is used to convert admits to enrollees—the EM industry expends substantial resources on earlier stages of the funnel." Link to Don Hossler and John Bean's 1990 book on the subject.
  • Elizabeth Popp Berman discusses the results in a brief thread: "This is a function of the funding model we've created, in which public university behavior is driven by a toxic mixture of 1) the status economy and 2) state funding cuts… The good news is that there is variation in this behavior: not all schools are doing it to the same degree. There's less in states with strong state support. And there's a difference among schools with similar state support/demographics." Link.
  • A 2006 report from Kati Haycock and Danette Gerald charts the trends in decreasing access for low income students. Link. Further work co-authored by Haycock in 2010 details the trend of public research universities offering financial aid to out of state students. Link.
  • In our newsletter last year, a spotlight on previous work by Ozan Jaquette and Bradley Curs finds that shrinking state funding leads public universities to increase their out-of-state enrollment. Linkto that paper, link to the archived letter, which includes several other relevant papers.
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March 16th, 2019

The Somnambulist

MAJORITY EARNINGS

Studying the impact of certificate programs in the higher ed landscape

Research surrounding student debt and the labor market value of postsecondary degrees focuses primarily on students obtaining a 4-year degree, secondarily on students receiving a 2-year degree, and only rarely considers students in certificate programs—non-degree awards that are cheaper and shorter than traditional degree programs. The scarcity of discourse on certificate programs is remarkable; given the rising costs of education and declining college premiums, certificate programs have assumed an increasingly large role in the postsecondary landscape. Moreover, the mission of community colleges has gradually shifted away from academic preparation and towards vocational education and job training programs.

There is very little in the way of a literature examining the role that certificate award programs play in the postsecondary landscape. In a rare example, a 2016 paper by DI XU and MADELINE JOY TRIMBLE estimates "the relationship between earning a certificate and student earnings and employment status after exiting college." The authors use detailed student-level information from North Carolina and Virginia to understand the impact of certificates on individual employment and wage earnings:

"The paper indicates that certificates have positive impacts on earnings in both states overall, and in cases where there is no impact on earnings, certificates may nonetheless lead to increased probability of employment or to other benefits. In some cases, certificates appear to promote entry into a student’s desired industry of employment, even if the industry switch is not associated with an increase in earning on average. The paper finds substantial variation in the returns across fields of study and, more importantly, across specific programs within a particular field. These results suggest that important evidence is lost when information about the benefits of certificate programs are simply averaged together. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the programs earnings relative to the institutional context and the local labor market."

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February 9th, 2019

Overboard

HETEROGENOUS GAP

In search of a more just model for higher education financing

This week, we delve into the persisting inequalities of our higher education system. Since Winston, Hill, and Boyd found that only 10% of students at elite universities came from families who fell within the bottom 40% of the income distribution in 2005, universities across the board have revived efforts to diversify their student bodies.

The idea that there's a need for greater socioeconomic diversity in higher education is largely uncontroversial, particularly amid growing evidence of the higher earnings potential for college graduates. However, the policies best suited to addressing this gap see far less consensus. ROSINGER, BELASCO, and HEARN in the Journal for Higher Education examine the impact of both means tested and universal policies that replace student loans with grants in financial aid packages. The impact of these policies on socioeconomic diversity is somewhat counterintuitive:

"We found that colleges offering universal discounts experienced increased enrollment among middle-class students. Our study indicates universal no-loan policies represent one strategy to increase access and affordability for the middle-class in the elite reaches of higher education. The study also, however, raises questions about the policies’ effectiveness in addressing access for low-income students and efficiency in targeting aid."

Link to the full paper.

  • For more on the potential for universities to facilitate both the entrenchment and supersession of generational inequalities, see the groundbreaking 2017 paper by Chetty et. al. The authors used fourteen years of federal income tax data to construct mobility report cards of nearly 2000 colleges, provoking a range of new literature in the field. Their findings: "The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates – i.e., those that offer both high success rates and low-income access – are typically mid-tier public institutions. For instance, many campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), certain California State colleges, and several campuses in the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6%… Elite private (Ivy-Plus) colleges have an average mobility rate of 2.2%." Link to the paper, as well as the digitization of its results, courtesy of the New York Times.
  • Drawing on "Mobility Report Cards," a recent paper by Bloome, Dyer, and Zhou finds that parental income has become less predictive of adult income, offsetting inter-generational income persistence resulting from education. Link.
  • Anna Manzoni and Jessi Streib find that wage gaps between first- and continuing-generation college students are not caused by the institutions they attend, the grades they earn, or the subjects they study: "Our decomposition analysis shows that the uneven distribution of students into labor market sectors, occupations, hours worked, and urban locations is more responsible for the wage gap than the distribution of students into and within educational institutions." Link.
  • A book on the trials and tribulations of building and maintaining the "Harvard of the proletariat": Anthony Picciano and Chet Jordan on the history of the CUNY system. Link.
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October 20th, 2018

Action Plan

WHAT IS A FAMILY?

Competing definitons of the term have vast policy implications

The formal definition of family is “blood, marriage, or adoption,” but that leaves out many possible arrangements, including families of unmarried people, foster children, co-ops, and, until 2015, gay partnerships. In the 1970s, family law became more open to “functional families” outside the formal definition, while zoning law kept to the strictly formal. Legal historian KATE REDBURN writes, “These contradictions leave critical family law doctrines unstable in thirty-two states.”

In a recent working paper, Redburn examines how these changes came to be, and looks more generally at how legal regimes exist within connected networks and influence each other despite traditional boundaries of scale (local, state, etc.) and subject (family law, zoning law):

“Viewed through a broader lens, this story might suggest lessons for law and social movements. While progressives oriented their campaigns at the state level, homeowners imbued local governance with conservative social politics in defense of their prejudices and property values. Neither movement, nor the judges adjudicating their case, nor the legislators revising state and local statutes, paid adequate attention to the interlocking nature of legal doctrines, rendering their movements less successful than they have previously appeared. Though we tend to think of legal fields as distinct regimes, ignoring the multifaceted ways that doctrines overlap, connect, and contradict each other can have perilous consequences. Their blind spot has has grown to encompass millions of Americans.”

Redburn’s case study provides ample evidence that micro-level legal conflicts can uphold and alter legal understandings:

“Motivated constituencies of voters and their elected representatives can produce legal change quite out of sync with social trends. Such was the case in the zoning definition of family in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite social change resulting in more functional families, protective homeowners and the conservative movement successfully shifted zoning law away from the functional family approach.”

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