Inside Higher Ed is the online source for news, opinion and jobs for all of higher education. Whether you're an adjunct or a vice president, a grad student or an eminence grise, they've got what you need to thrive in your job or find a better one.
Concordia College in Alabama has announced that it will end operations at the end of this academic year.
Concordia is a historically black institution, and the only such institution to be Lutheran. The announcement of the closure came from the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, which noted "great sadness" over the decision.
A statement from the synod said in part: "[S]ince July 2006, of the total subsidy (not including scholarships) given to the 10 campuses of the Concordia University System, CCA [the Alabama college] alone has received more than 44 percent of that amount. But in spite of this assistance and funds from other sources, CCA -- whose own efforts to stay viable have been robust -- was not able to achieve acceptable and sustainable financial performance."
The statement added: "The synod must continually evaluate how it allocates its limited resources in the face of so many worthy mission-and-ministry opportunities both at home and abroad. This often requires the synod’s Board of Directors to make difficult decisions in following the principles of wise and faithful, Scripture-mandated stewardship.
Concordia was founded -- as the Alabama Lutheran Academy -- in Selma in 1922. Rosa J. Young, known as "the mother of black Lutheranism in America," started the college.
The college has about 400 students. More than 90 percent are black, and more than 90 percent are eligible for Pell Grants, meaning that they are from low-income families.
The statement on closure noted that Concordia Alabama "has hardly been alone in facing such difficulties. In recent years, many small, private, liberal arts colleges have closed owing to financial pressures and other factors, such as low enrollments and small endowments. Religiously affiliated colleges have been particularly hard hit, as have historically black colleges and universities."
Atlantic Union College, in Massachusetts, will also close this year, its board announced Wednesday. The college is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The entire editorial board of the scholarly journal Building Research & Information announced Friday morning that it is resigning to protest the publisher's decision to replace the editor-in-chief. The board members resigning come from leading universities around the world. In an open letter, the departing editorial board members said Taylor & Francis cited no problems with the journal, but only a desire to rotate editors. The editorial board members said that Taylor & Francis was endangering the journal by rejecting the views of the entire editorial board. Taylor & Francis said it could not comment on the situation this morning, but planned a statement later.
Today on the Academic Minute, Samuel Sober, assistant professor in the biology department at Emory University, explores which part of our brain avoids making the same error twice. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
The University of Groningen had grand plans for a branch campus in China. One of the oldest and largest universities in the Netherlands, Groningen planned to create a broad research university in the northeastern Chinese city of Yantai that would eventually enroll 10,000 students across a range of bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. programs. In 2015, the university signed a tripartite agreement with its partner institution, China Agricultural University, and the city of Yantai, which agreed to cover construction and renovation costs for the campus and to cover budget deficits. Groningen would have joined a small number of Western universities -- including Duke and New York Universities in the U.S. and the Universities of Liverpool and Nottingham in the U.K. -- with a full-fledged branch campus in China.
It was not to be. Groningen’s board announced late last month that it would not proceed with plans to offer Groningen degrees in Yantai, citing “insufficient support” for the plan from the University Council, an elected body composed of half faculty and staff members and half students. In the case of the China campus, the council did not just serve in an advisory or consultative capacity: instead it had what a university website describes as “the right of consent to the definitive decision to found a branch campus in Yantai.” University Council members explained that their consent was required for the university to gain final approval from the Dutch government to grant degrees in Yantai under the terms of a new law on transnational education.
University Council members said the reasons for their opposition varied, with some opposing the campus due to concerns about restrictions on academic freedom in China and others having more practical objections to the specifics of the plan. A report from a University Council commission charged with evaluating the business plan for the campus describes a number of practical concerns, including worries about the adequacy of the budget, which was to be subsidized by the local government, insufficient support for the Yantai campus among faculty in two of the six programs that would initially be offered there, and the lack of a clear exit strategy.
According to the commission report, withdrawal from the 30-year agreement was only possible due to a situation of force majeure, breach of contract or by mutual agreement, and a potential exit scenario after four years could only occur in the case of mutual agreement or through an arbitration decision from a court in Hong Kong.
The commission largely sidestepped the hot-button issue of academic freedom, devoting just a paragraph to noting that there are different views on the matter and asking readers to judge for themselves.
Ultimately, the report concludes that "there are a number or risks that have not been sufficiently thought through" while the benefits to Groningen were, for the most part, "difficult to quantify." Among the benefits that were discussed in the report were new resources and possibilities for research and for student mobility, as well as a potential rise in Groningen's international recognition and position in university rankings.
"The commission supports internationalization but sees too little added value in setting up a branch campus, relative to existing initiatives, to justify the efforts that the branch campus entails," the report states.
The head of the commission, Olaf Scholten, a professor of nuclear physics, said he concurred with the commission’s conclusions. Scholten said that his additional worry was that the university would not be fully reimbursed for the time its faculty and staff spend on the Yantai campus, with potential negative effects for the education and workload in Groningen. He acknowledged that this is a soft argument -- he cannot prove it will be a problem -- but the possibility concerns him nevertheless.
"The thing that worries me is that in order to achieve this, there’s a large flow of money going from the local government into this branch campus. My concern is that the reimbursement that the University of Groningen can receive from this would be under pressure," he said.
Bart Beijer, the chair of the University Council’s nine-member Personnel Faction and a policy officer in educational affairs, where he deals mostly with quality assurance and elearning, said it had become clear that the majority of council members opposed the plan. For some, he said, academic freedom and human rights issues were the main reasons, while others had doubts about the benefits for education in Groningen and the level of faculty support for the project.
Beijer said that he was not personally among those who opposed the plan. “Unlike the others I was prepared to wait a few months for a better plan,” he said. But he had a number of worries. These included “the risk of underestimating the workload for Yantai back in Groningen,” “the lack of benefits for the educational programs in Groningen” and “the continuous costs to keep up the quality of the programs in Yantai. Although it was said that Yantai would pay these costs, the budget as it was known to us looked insufficient.” Beijer said he was also worried about “the lack of support by those (two out of the six programs planned to start in Yantai) who had to do the most of the work.”
Henk-Jan Wondergem, a member of the University Council and chairman of the student party Lijst Calimero, similarly said insufficient faculty support for the project was a decisive factor in his party -- which has five members on the council -- coming out against the campus. “The most important reason was the fact that the same degrees were offered in Yantai and in Groningen, and we did not have the confidence with the plan that was there that the quality of education could be ensured, which threatens the value of the diplomas in Groningen here,” he said. “That had to do with a lot of technical underlying factors, relating to the budget, reacting to how much staff will come from Groningen to Yantai, and how soon new staff would be hired by Groningen in China.”
Wondergem also said the student party was concerned about issues related to academic freedom and plans to appoint a Chinese Communist Party secretary to the Yantai campus board. In a November statement, Groningen’s president, Sibrand Poppema, said that the university would protect academic freedom and independence and that the Communist Party representative on the board would have no control over programs. A memorandum of understanding between Groningen and China Agricultural University on the establishment of Yantai Groningen University states that “in accordance with the higher education laws and regulations of China and the Netherlands, academic staff and students at Yantai Groningen University shall enjoy academic freedom and an autonomous and independent academic environment.”
“In the end, I think it really boils down to if you are going to have a really intensive intercultural cooperation, how much of your own values are you willing to give up,” Wondergem said. “That’s a really personal choice. For us we said we think offering our degrees, our diploma from a Dutch university which is 400 years old under a university which is run by a party secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, is just too far. It’s just a step too far. It crosses a line that we do not want to cross.”
By contrast another student party, the Student Organization Groningen -- which also has five representatives on the University Council -- was in support of the Yantai campus. “We saw it as a very positive and interesting opportunity for the university,” said Zeger Glas, the chairman of the party. Glas said he saw benefits “in terms of international reputation and recognition -- which could lead to an influx of more and better students, more and better staff and research funds” as well as “opportunities to study in a high-quality program in China.”
“We found those advantages were definitely weighing up against the disadvantages or risks that we would take when we would set up the campus,” Glas said.
Joost Herman, a professor in globalization studies and humanitarian action and head of Groningen’s Department of International Relations and International Organization -- and a strong supporter of the Yantai campus plan -- criticized the University Council for “only seeing obstacles and not seeing opportunities.”
“U Council has basically focused on the practicalities of the implementation of these four bachelor of science programs that will be the first ones on offer at the campus in Yantai, and in my opinion, the ones with real experience in China, academic experience, were simply not consulted.” Herman argued, in effect, that the Council focused in fine detail on practical questions of implementation “while missing out on the bigger picture.” (Scholten, the head of the University Council’s commission on the Yantai campus, said the “University Council has consulted several experts inside and outside the university with experience in China” and that as such the commission did not repeat the exercise. The commission’s charge, he said, was primarily to examine the business plan for the campus.)
“What disturbed us,” Herman said, “was U Council, wonderful colleagues who normally give advice to the Board of Directors, due to political pressure they were catapulted into this position of co-decision, whereas normally they are in a kind of advisory role. I do believe that strategic decisions that have effects for the next 20 to 30 years should be at the level of the board.”
“By not going there we now completely cut off the possibility of influencing the next generation for the next decades to come who will be the rulers, so to speak, of Chinese society,” Herman said. “We are throwing away an enormous opportunity to make an effect, to make an imprint.”
Spokespeople for the University of Groningen did not respond to multiple requests for interviews with the president, Poppema, or another senior administrator. In a statement about the decision not to offer Groningen degree programs in Yantai, Poppema left open the door for other future activities there: “In the near future we will investigate, together with the faculties and degree programs, which other forms of collaboration are possible in Yantai,” he said.
Jon Anderson, professor of management and former deputy provost at the University of West Georgia, has been selected as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Middle Georgia State University.
Vincent Boudreau, interim president of the City College of New York, has been named to the job on a permanent basis.
Robert B. Callahan, vice president for administrative, enrollment and student services at Mount Mercy University, in Iowa, has been chosen as president of Silver Lake College of the Holy Family, in Wisconsin.
Deborah J. Curtis, provost and chief learning officer at the University of Central Missouri, has been appointed president of Indiana State University.
Craig H. Kennedy, dean of the College of Education at the University of Georgia, has been selected as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Connecticut.
Larry Robinson, interim president of Florida A&M University, has been appointed to the job on a permanent basis.
Eunice Tarver, interim provost of Tulsa Community College's Northeast Campus, has been named to the job on a permanent basis.
Aaron A. Walton, interim president of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, has been appointed to the job on a permanent basis.
Matthew Wetstein, assistant superintendent and vice president of instruction and planning at San Joaquin Delta College, in California, has been selected as president/superintendent of Cabrillo College, also in California.
Nancy Kolsti, a spokeswoman for the University of North Texas, resigned this week amid public discussion of an email she sent to a student leader criticizing "reverse racism," The Denton Record-Chronicle reported. Kolsti sent the email to a student who was involved in efforts to have the university name a new residence hall for a minority individual or a woman. Just over half the students at the University of North Texas are not white, and 52 percent are women, but none of the 87 buildings on campus are named for a minority individual (two are named for women). Kolsti's email, which the recipient posted to social media, said that "UNT buildings should be named after individuals who are deserving of such an honor -- not individuals who are chosen to fill a quota system." Many were shocked that someone who was a university spokesperson would send such an email, even after the university said she had acted as a private citizen. The university said Kolsti resigned for personal reasons.
College students may believe they’re ready for a job, but employers think otherwise.
At least, that’s according to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which surveyed graduating college seniors and employers and found a significant difference in the groups' perceptions.
The association surveyed 4,213 graduating seniors and 201 employers on eight “competencies” that it considers necessary to be prepared to enter the workplace. This information comes from the association’s 2018 Job Outlook Survey.
For the most part, a high percentage of students indicated in almost every category they thought they were proficient. Employers disagreed.
“This can be problematic because it suggests that employers see skills gaps in key areas where college students don’t believe gaps exist,” a statement from the association reads.
The biggest divide was around students’ professionalism and work ethic. Almost 90 percent of seniors thought they were competent in that area, but only about 43 percent of the employers agreed.
Nearly 80 percent of students also believed they were competent in oral and written communication and critical thinking, while only roughly 42 percent and 56 percent of employers, respectively, indicated that students were successful in those areas.
Per the survey, only in digital technology skills were employers more likely to feel that students were prepared versus the seniors themselves.
Almost 66 percent of employers rated students proficient in technology compared to 60 percent of the seniors.
But Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup's higher education division, which also conducts research related to graduates and careers, said these sorts of definitions can vary.
For instance, Gallup has found that generally an employer believes that "critical thinking" is coming up with new, original thought. But in an academic sense, it can mean more picking apart ideas in depth, he said.
Written communication can differ, too, he said -- some students might excel at writing technical reports or papers with lots of citations, but these are far different than writing for marketing, Busteed said.
"I think in some ways these studies beg for further exploration," he said.
Busteed also pointed out that the lifestyle for the traditional undergraduate student likely does not match how they will need to operate when they enter the work force.
Undergraduates are typically scheduling classes later in the morning and staying up until the late hours of the night, which does not prepare them for an eight-hour workday, he said.
The easy solution: set students up in a more professional environment, Busteed said -- this could be internships or co-op programs. If students can't go to an actual office, then the environment should be brought to them so they have a better sense of how a workplace runs.
"It's good news because there's real quick fixes, but it's not a prevalent as it should be," he said.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities has conducted similar research. In 2015, it found that students thought they were far better equipped for jobs than employers did.
The AAC&U looked at some of the same measures as the association. Specifically around oral communication, students ranked themselves highly -- about 62 percent of students believed they did well in this area compared to 28 percent of employers. That and written communication showed the biggest gaps in the AAC&U report (27 percent of employers versus 65 percent of students).
“When it comes to the types of skills and knowledge that employers feel are most important to workplace success, large majorities of employers do NOT feel that recent college graduates are well prepared,” the AAC&U report states. “This is particularly the case for applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings, critical thinking skills, and written and oral communication skills -- areas in which fewer than three in 10 employers think that recent college graduates are well prepared.”
Let me say that again. On their own, skills do not matter.
This is worth saying in response to Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed story stating that the American Council on Education will “team up with the digital credential provider Credly to help people put a value on skills they have learned outside college courses.” The initiative, funded by the Lumina Foundation, is, in the words of ACE’s Ted Mitchell, “about creating a new language for the labor market” in which skills-based competencies are valued and credited.
It’s wonderful and important for employers to develop their employees’ skills, but colleges and universities need not take notice, because these efforts are irrelevant to collegiate education’s goals and purposes.
One way to think about why skills do not matter is by analogizing to other kinds of education. Imagine your employer provided you a manual dexterity class where you learned to move your fingers about effectively. Now imagine that you came to a guitar teacher and asked for credit. Certainly, guitar players need to have manual dexterity, but the guitar teacher would wonder why you deserved credit. Learning dexterity absent actually playing guitar is not particularly valuable. It certainly does not mean that one can play guitar, nor that one has understood guitar nor embraced the purpose of studying guitar. It’s a meaningless skill from the perspective of a guitar teacher.
The same can be said of a karate teacher. Imagine that your employer had taught you to kick but had never introduced you to the specifics of karate. Do you have a “karate competency” because karate also requires kicking? Of course not.
Instead, a good karate instructor will point out that kicking abstracted from the context of learning karate is not particularly relevant to the task at hand. It will not teach one how to kick within karate, nor embody the values and discipline that a karate instructor intends to develop in her or his students.
The same is true for college professors committed to ensuring that students graduate with a liberal education. Certainly, being successful in the arts and sciences requires high-level cognitive and academic skills. But those skills are meaningless unless they are learned within and devoted to the purposes of liberal education.
In short, offering college credit for disembodied skills is as much a mistake as a guitar instructor offering credit for manual dexterity.
How, then, should colleges and universities understand skills? For starters, they should always see them in relation to the specific ends of the programs that they offer. This is as true for vocational as for liberal education. The skills of a carpenter or a nurse or a car mechanic are not isolated but are interconnected and oriented to the end of wood construction, providing health care or repairing engines, just as a guitar teacher’s goal is to impart knowledge and techniques in relation to playing the guitar.
For four-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, the skills that matter should be related to their primary mission of offering every undergraduate a liberal education. At such institutions, academic skills should be developed in the context of, for example, reading and writing about literature or history or engaging in scientific inquiry.
A liberal education is not just any kind of education. Like carpentry, nursing or guitar playing, it has content. It seeks to cultivate specific virtues through specific practices. For example, the goal of a historian is not to teach abstract skills (such as parsing evidence or writing papers) but to help students engage in intellectual inquiry about the past. This means that skills are developed within the context of reading and writing history. The end is historical perspective, and the skills are means to that end. From the perspective of a historian, it matters little whether someone has good skills unless they also have learned to value history and to develop historical insight.
In addition, skills, from the perspective of four-year colleges and universities, are meaningless outside studying specific subject matter. If colleges and universities want students to care about and think with the arts and sciences, students need to spend their time studying the arts and sciences.
Indeed, scholars of teaching and learning have made clear that critical thinking skills cannot be abstracted from the material that one studies. As James Lang writes in his book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning (2016), “Knowledge is foundational: we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.” That is because the ability to ask sophisticated questions and to evaluate potential answers is premised on what one already knows, not just on skills abstracted from context.
Thus, if the goal of four-year college education is liberal education, we need students to study subject matter in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Students need to engage seriously with history and politics, or economics and physics, before they will be able to think critically about history or politics or economics or physics. This takes time. Assessing skills cannot, and certainly should not, be done outside the context of the subjects one ought to study in college.
This is not to deny that employers should invest more resources in developing their employees’ skills, nor to suggest that those skills don’t matter within the context of specific employment markets. There are many reasons to celebrate public and private efforts to develop Americans’ work-force skills, and doing so can benefit both employers and individuals.
It simply matters little to the kinds of things that one should earn college credit for. Employers’ goals are not to graduate liberally educated adults, but to generate human capital. Generating human capital may also be a byproduct of a good liberal education, but it is certainly not the goal of it.
In fact, a good liberal education asks students to put aside, even if just for a while, their pecuniary goals in order to experience the public and personal value of gaining insight into the world by studying the arts and sciences. This is the end, the purpose, the reason for a college education. Whatever other purposes students might bring to their education, and whatever valuable byproducts emerge as a result of their time in college, colleges and universities should remain true to their academic mission.
College and university leaders talk all the time about their embrace of global agendas: they strive to enroll international students. They sign agreements with institutions around the world. They boast about the global perspectives of their campuses.
But is American higher education truly global? Or could it be increasingly parochial?
A new book argues more for the latter view than the former. Reward structures, particularly for faculty members in social science fields that should be global in perspective, are pushing them inward instead, according to Seeing the World: How U.S. Universities Make Knowledge in a Global Era (Princeton University Press). The authors are Mitchell L. Stevens, associate professor of education at Stanford University; Cynthia Miller-Idriss, associate professor of education and sociology at American University; and Seteney Shami, a program director at the Social Science Research Council and founding director of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. Their book is based on interviews with scholars in a range of social science disciplines.
Stevens and Miller-Idriss responded via email to questions about their book.
Q: College and university presidents talk all the time about their institutions’ "global vision" or internationalization. Yet your book suggests areas in higher education that have a decidedly American focus. Why is that?
A: There’s no question that U.S. universities are courting clients and patrons all over the world. But we found that these global ambitions are often not matched by faculty in the social sciences, who are often ambivalent about international research. Social-science journals, book publishers and faculty hiring committees in the U.S. strongly favor scholarship on North American and Western European topics. It’s a peculiar but powerful legacy of the 20th century, when these regions were unquestionably dominant on the world stage.
Q: As you look at disciplines, are some better than others at embracing an international perspective?
A: Not better or worse, but different. Economists often were adamant that their economic explanatory models had primacy over cultural context: the world provides cases for economists to test the models. As one of them put it, “To understand what their census statistics mean, I don’t need to speak their language. This is just wrong.”
Political scientists have a strong comparative tradition, which enables them to recognize and appreciate place-specific inquiry. But we heard repeatedly that regional expertise was second to methodological expertise as political science gets “teched up,” as one of them put it, in quantitative methods.
Sociologists were the most parochial of the three disciplines. Sociology department chairs said frankly that they deliberately steer graduate students away from international study because such projects on non-U.S. topics are less likely to have purchase on the tenure-line job market.
Q: Why does the tenure process seem to encourage American researchers to focus on their own country?
A: The tenure process is largely mediated by disciplines. Scholars have to attain recognizable disciplinary success through publications and presentations in disciplinary journals, university presses and conferences. External reviewers are primarily or even exclusively drawn from the same discipline. And because those disciplines prioritize their own theoretical abstractions, contextual knowledge loses out. This isn’t only a problem of U.S./national versus global knowledge, but rather of the value placed on knowledge dedicated to particular problems or contexts.
Q: Will the American focus hurt American higher education?
A: In the long term, yes, because the relentless race to build prestigious universities worldwide will mean ever more opportunities for scholars who can produce knowledge of consequence for patrons outside the U.S. We believe that American social scientists jeopardize their long-term relevance if they remain ethnocentric. But in the short term, the rest of the world continues to believe that Americans produce the best scholarship.
The challenge for social scientists is to leverage their current strong reputations while also adapting to secular changes in where the money is coming from. Though we didn’t investigate it systematically in this book, it appears that the professional schools -- especially schools of business and public policy -- have been most canny in responding to the globalization of academic patronage.
Q: Many global trends -- "America first" in the United States, Brexit in Britain, nationalism elsewhere -- seem to suggest a shift inward around the world. Does this influence American researchers? Does it concern you?
A: The big, but little recognized, factor here is the end of the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1989, leaders in the U.S. federal government and the national academy largely shared a conviction that communism posed an existential threat to the countries in what was once called the West. The global ascendance of capitalism and the steady rise of China, India and Brazil as economic powerhouses has upended the old good vs. evil narratives that, for better or worse, organized a great deal of academic patronage in the second half of the 20th century. There is no clear storyline or center of gravity now. We all want to be global, but no one is quite sure what that entails.
For years, many states -- believing that a postsecondary credential is a necessity to succeed in the economy -- have moved toward making the first two years of college tuition free. But a growing number are attaching requirements and conditions to tuition-free plans that worry advocates for low-income students.
Minimum grade point average requirements are common. And several free-college programs now mandate that students major in certain subjects, take drug tests or enroll full-time to be eligible.
Mississippi, for instance, is considering a bill that would restrict free tuition to career and technical education programs. And Kentucky's free community college program is limited to students who seek certificates in five state-identified industries with worker shortages -- health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, business services and internet technology, and construction.
"We would prefer states enact the most universal possible free college programs," said Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition. "But we're also cognizant that [they are] enacting free college tuition for different reasons and therefore they are likely to arrive at a different legislative solution to address, in the legislation, the problem they're trying to solve."
The details of each initiative play out differently state by state, he said, and depend on the economics, goals and politics of each region.
"It's a reflection of why they think they're giving out the benefit," Winograd said. "Some legislators and voters are doing so because they want everyone to have an opportunity for an education that is necessary to a successful economic life, but others are thinking of it as a particular tool or weapon to improve their economic development prospects."
It's understandable that states would want to direct their students to industries where they know there are shortages or potential for future growth, Winograd said. But it can be difficult for many high school students to know which career they want to pursue or if they will have the ability to pursue those careers.
In defending his state's free tuition program, New York governor Andrew Cuomo addressed criticism about its residency requirement by asking, "Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and you move to California?"
Martha Kanter, a former under secretary of education in the Obama administration, now leads the College Promise Campaign, another advocacy group. She said state lawmakers manage their free-tuition programs aggressively for the same reason they created them.
"Political leaders around the country are frustrated that not enough students are graduating, the progress isn't fast enough and it takes too long to move students through the process," said Kanter.
The harder question, she said, is how states and systems can help students who are working full-time take more credits and be successful, which requires covering transportation, childcare, textbooks and more.
"It's a balancing act," Kanter said. "If you put requirements of high [grade point average] and full-time, you're going to have more success and fewer students participating. The more selective you are, you probably will see better outcomes from the research."
Requirements for Colleges
Sometimes states have added requirements to tuition-subsidy programs that are aimed at colleges rather than students.
California, for example, last year passed a law to make the first year of community college tuition-free for first-time students. That program joins roughly 50 local tuition-free initiatives in the state, as well as the rebranded California Promise Grant, formerly known as the Board of Governors fee waiver for low-income students, which makes community college tuition-free for approximately one million of the state's 2.1 million community college students.
The California College Promise program places requirements on community colleges that want to participate -- colleges must partner with K-12 school districts in an early college commitment program as well as use the state's guided pathways project.
Not everyone is happy about California's approach to free college, however.
"We believe all of higher education should be tuition-free," said Dean Murakami, a professor of psychology at American River College and president of the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers, a faculty union. "But this program is now going to get those students who are middle and higher income. It targets a population that is not that vulnerable, and we have a concern there. We're paying for rich people to come in. And is supplementing their fees a good usage of the money at this point?"
California governor Jerry Brown's budget, released last month, would allocate about $46 million toward the Promise program.
"We think there are better alternatives," Murakami said. "We can use that to help vulnerable, low-income students."
Murakami said those dollars could be better used to help students with homelessness, the cost of textbooks, transportation and childcare, or food insecurity, which are issues at-risk community college students face even when tuition is free.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the community college system's chancellor, said in a letter to the institutions that even with the fee waiver and the statewide Promise program, "the struggle to lower the full cost of attending college has only scratched the surface, because attending a California community college is still far from free."
Those communities and institutions in the state that have been raising money or working with local leaders to create Promise programs will have the flexibility now to use those funds to offer a second tuition-free year, or cover books, supplies and other expenses for low-income students because of the statewide Promise, he said.
Most faculty members don't see a problem with the early commitment program, which educates families on college opportunities, financial aid and offers preparatory courses. But some institutions may not be prepared to participate, he said.
As for guided pathways, those are decisions made on the local level by individual campuses and academic senates, Murakami said, adding that the law's conditions weren't included in early discussions with faculty leaders.
"What they're doing here is they're coercing colleges and districts to be part of guided pathways and early commitment programs because if they're not, they can't get the funding to help these students," he said.
But colleges have to move beyond incentivizing access and toward incentivizing completion, Oakley said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
"We want true access for students," he said, "to make sure the reforms we put in place lead to greater outcomes for students."
A couple of colleges may be challenged by the requirements, Oakley said, but all 114 have notified his office that they intend to participate.
The Push for Full-Time
The California program would only benefit students who attend community college full-time. That requirement, which other states also have included, has been criticized by free-college advocates.
"I wish everyone could take 15 units in a semester, but that's not possible if most students are working full-time," Kanter said. "The easy thing to do is put more requirements on students. The hard thing is making sure they get advising, mentoring and mapping schedule."
However, Winograd said, he views attendance or completion requirements differently from postgraduation residency rules, for example. Both New York and Rhode Island's programs include residency requirements.
"It's one thing to get kids into college," he said. "But it's ultimately not the end of the challenge unless we get them to complete their education."
Winograd points to former president Obama's national proposal for free community college, which would have required participating students take at least 12 credits a semester.
In New York, in order to qualify for the state's tuition-free program, which also applies to four-year institutions, students must take 30 credits a year. A postgraduation residency requirement also asks recipients to live and work in the state for the length of time they participated in the scholarship program.
"We would not be supportive of something that required people to work in the state if there is any kind of labor mobility that would be restricted," Winograd said.
Tennessee has received wide acclaim as the first state in the country to offer free community college, through the Tennessee Promise. But Bill Haslam, the state's Republican governor, recently called for a requirement that students complete 30 credits a year to maintain the scholarship.
Officials in Tennessee are optimistic that encouraging students to pursue full-time status will help raise graduation and retention rates. An end-of-the-year report from Complete Tennessee revealed that the state still struggles with community college completion, with three-year graduation rates averaging 20 percent in 2016.
"We focused a lot on access and made gains on the college-going rate," said Samantha Gutter, education policy adviser in the Tennessee governor's office. "But our completion rates in Tennessee are not where we would like them to be."
The six-year graduation rate is 26.3 percent for the state's community colleges and 56.8 percent for undergraduate programs at universities. The state wants to increase the percentage of adults with a certificate or degree from 40.7 percent now to 55 percent by 2025.
"This is truly 30 [credits] in 12 [months]," Gutter said. "We want to set the bar high, but also give them the flexibility to complete within a year and get them on track. We're hearing from the critics, but this is a research-based practice."
Research showed a positive impact on students in Indiana after they received a financial incentive under the state's 15 to Finish initiative.
The completion requirements in Tennessee wouldn't apply to adults in the state's Reconnect program, which is tuition-free for nontraditional students. And the state is asking colleges to create ready-made guides that build in the 30 hours for students.
If students can't complete 30 credit hours, the scholarship isn't revoked, Gutter said, but lowered by $250. And because the Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, those students who receive Pell Grants wouldn't see a dramatic change.
There's one additional safeguard. Students who received college credit in high school through dual-enrollment courses, International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement could apply that credit to meeting the full-time requirement, Gutter said.
But, she said, the state isn't broadcasting those safeguards directly to students.
"Even students who come from a disadvantaged background can rise to meet these expectations," she said, adding that, on average, Tennessee Promise recipients take 13 credits a semester.
Drug Testing in West Virginia
West Virginia's free college program mandates that graduates remain in the state for two years. And the Legislature also is considering a requirement for tuition-free recipients to take a drug test at their own cost.
The proposal drew the ire of free-college advocates like Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, who tweeted, "Let's be clear: the people pushing 15 to Finish, tying financial aid to credits, are the same people imposing work requirements on the social safety net and drug testing free college. These are no leaders."
Let’s be clear: the people pushing 15 to Finish, tying financial aid to credits, are the same people imposing work requirements on the social safety net & drug testing free college. These are *not* leaders. https://t.co/N84nwSuoMV
But Winograd said the proposal is a political compromise.
"The way to secure the votes needed was to assure that people who are breaking the law wouldn't be a recipient of this benefit," he said. "It is worth noting the provision passed the Senate unanimously. Democrats and Republicans in West Virginia voted for the idea."
Kanter said the country is moving in the right direction on free tuition and hopes the added requirements don't restrict access for students.
"I'm still holding the flag of college for all, and we need a more educated country," she said. "There is a lot of lost talent, and the more restrictions politicians put on Promise programs or need-based aid, like if you add more drug testing … what will it do for the population you're there to lead and serve? I'm hoping politicians learn from research and listen to the research and don't pick the easiest things based on money."