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College groups push for suspension of financial responsibility scores as feds release distance ed rule

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 00:00

This week has been busy on the higher education regulatory front. A coalition of college associations is pushing for the suspension of a federal measure of colleges’ financial standing, and the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday released new proposed rules on distance education.

Meanwhile, a prominent online program management company’s CEO pushed back at scrutiny of his sector, which appears to have contributed to Congress placing restrictions on reimbursements for colleges' spending on OPMs in the $2.2 trillion stimulus measure it passed last week.

The federal financial responsibility score has long been criticized as an inadequate measure of the fiscal health of colleges and universities. During the Great Recession, for example, its relatively heavy focus on cash and endowment spending led to low scores for some colleges with relatively strong finances. The Government Accountability Office found that the composite scores predicted just half of the closures during the last decade.

The metric uses institutions’ primary financial reserves, equity and net income to create a composite score of -1 to 3. Colleges scoring 1.5 or above are deemed financially responsible. The feds require cash monitoring and other oversight colleges with scores of 1 to 1.5. Those below 1 are considered not financially responsible and can lose federal aid eligibility without posting a letter of credit and being subject to cash monitoring.

Despite the composite score’s widely accepted limitations, it remains the only national standard for monitoring the financial stability of colleges. Regulators that use the metrics include state agencies, accreditors, auditors and the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), which sets national standards for interstate distance education offerings.

However, the new financial crisis has created urgency among private college leaders who want to suspend the use of the metric by the feds and NC-SARA.

When surveyed recently by Inside Higher Ed about where they need the most support from state and federal governments to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, a full quarter of responding college presidents said they need the ability to tap endowment funds without negatively affecting their financial responsibility score.

Leaders of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the American Council on Education last week wrote to the department to ask that financial responsibility standards be waived for three years. Signing the letter were 45 other higher education groups representing private colleges.

“We are deeply concerned about the larger effects of the current liquidity crunch facing American higher education, especially the impact that the current economic crisis will have on institutional financial responsibility composite scores at private nonprofit colleges and universities,” the groups wrote.

The formula favors cash, and the impact of the financial downturn will hit hard during the last quarter of this year, said Sarah Flanagan, NAICU’s vice president for government relations. To cope with skewed composite scores, she said many colleges will be forced to resort to dramatic slashing of employee-intensive budgets.

“The bottom falls out in the final quarter,” she said. “The only way they can balance it is to do layoffs.”

Flanagan cited a current example of a small private college with a roughly $20 million annual operating budget. The president of the college told NAICU he needs an $800,000 surplus due to the composite metric. And to do that, the college needs to furlough 25 employees for 90 days and to cut salaries across the board.

However, some criticized the attempt by private college lobbyists to suspend the financial responsibility standard, despite its flaws.

Such a move would be “wildly irresponsible,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America's Education Policy program. (Earlier this week New America released a report arguing that regulators should pay closer attention to the financial health of colleges.)

“I completely understand why the schools are worried,” said McCann, given the magnitude of the crisis, which has only begun to come into focus.

Lost revenue and spending related to the pandemic likely will exceed the amount of aid colleges and universities receive through the $14 billion in federal stimulus, the credit ratings firm Moody’s said Wednesday. And half of that $14 billion is allocated to students as emergency aid.

Even so, McCann said the federal government and regulators have a responsibility to monitor colleges’ finances to seek to protect students and taxpayers from precipitous college closures. This is particularly true as many colleges face existential threats.

“This is about the worst time to suspend financial responsibility scores,” she said.

Making quick improvements to the metric will be difficult, said McCann and others. One reason is that the feds don’t publish the composite score’s components. And the last overhaul to the measure took years and millions of dollars.

Few other large-scale efforts by regulators to oversee colleges’ financial sustainability are being developed. Massachusetts had been working on such a tool, as had the New England Commission of Higher Education. But those efforts may be set back by the crisis.

Lori Williams, NC-SARA’s president and CEO, shares critics’ view that the composite score is a flawed measure.

“We agree. It’s not a holistic indication,” she said. But Williams said it remains the only nationally recognized tool available to monitor institutions’ financial sustainability.

“As more schools transition to distance learning, NC-SARA and others must continue to enforce appropriate oversight measures to protect students,” she said in a statement. “We are open to collaborating with stakeholders to develop a reasonable alternative that can help reliably evaluate institutions’ financial health, but we will not sacrifice our consumer protection responsibility to students by waiving any consideration of financial health.”

NC-SARA’s board plans to vote in May on whether to continue relying on the metric. Department officials told higher education leaders in a call Tuesday that they plan to use the scores this fall.

Flanagan said she thinks it’s unlikely the department would use the measure to shut down colleges during the crisis. But she said colleges may have to use needed cash to set aside for letters of credit because of their scores.

Dropping the measure is not ideal, she said.

“We don’t want to leave a hole,” Flanagan said, but she added, “People are going to get laid off. We are in an emergency situation.”

Proposed Regulations Governing Innovation and Online Education

The draft rules released by the Education Department Wednesday are faithful (as federal law requires them to be) to a consensus proposal approved last year by a subcommittee of the panel the department convened in 2018 to negotiate new rules.

The package of recommendations approved last spring by the rule-making subcommittee on distance education and innovation was generally supported by educators and online learning supporters, who said the changes in federal law would clarify some murky definitions and give institutions more flexibility to create and enroll students in nontraditional academic programs.

Advocates for students, though, said they worried the new rules would remove vital checks on new programs and providers and create potential for abuse of students.

Since the proposed rules released Wednesday hew to the earlier proposals, reaction to them largely broke down as expected. Consumer advocates, like New America's McCann, said the rules would undermine the quality of online learning at a time when colleges and students are engaging in it more than ever, given the impact of the coronavirus.

The quality of online learning has never been more important. A new, proposed @usedgov regulation would make the rules more lax. (And thanks for the mid-pandemic 30-day comment period.) https://t.co/3yGq6jidnr

— Clare McCann (@claremccann) April 1, 2020

Observers who both like and dislike the department's proposed rules commonly cited some aspects of their release. They noted that department officials, in their commentary describing the recommended rules, signaled potential opposition to some elements of the package the negotiating committee put forward, including provisions regarding the credit hour and the definition of distance education.

Both of those were areas in which the Education Department had pushed proposals that were rejected by negotiators as they reached their compromise agreement last spring.

Several experts also noted that the department, in its news release about the proposed regulations, linked their release to the onset of COVID-19, when their release was months overdue and had been drafted before the pandemic was on anyone's radar screen.

"With our support, colleges and universities were among the first to transition to online and distance learning so learning could continue during the coronavirus pandemic," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was quoted as saying in the news release. "Frankly, though, they are working within the confines of stale rules and regulations that are in desperate need of rethinking. We know there are fewer and fewer 'traditional' students in higher education, and this current crisis has made crystal clear the need for more innovation. It's past time we rethink higher ed to meet the needs of all students."

It's not clear why the department tied the regulations' publication to the coronavirus crisis, although several experts speculated that it might be to justify the 30-day period the department provided for commenting on the new rules (which is shorter than is typical) and to ward off any suggestion that the government shouldn't issue major regulatory guidance at a time when many people are distracted by a national crisis.

OPM Costs Not Reimbursed in Stimulus

One provision in the stimulus bill that has generated attention and controversy in higher education relates to online program management companies.

Colleges and universities that contract with OPMs to help them transition to online instruction amid the pandemic may be unable to have their costs reimbursed under the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus, according to a blog post from the education practice of Cooley, a law firm.

"Funding cannot be used for payments to contractors for 'pre-enrollment recruitment activities,' which could present a challenge for many OPMs that structure their fees as tuition shares and therefore do not distinguish payments made for recruiting activities from payments for other eligible services under the CARES Act," the blog post said.

OPMs have drawn scrutiny in the last year from Democratic senators and from Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former Education Department official during the Obama administration. That attention largely has centered on tuition-sharing agreements between the companies and colleges.

Chip Paucek, the CEO of 2U, a high-profile OPM, on Tuesday posted a thread on Twitter in which he fired back at Shireman. He argued that now is not the right time to push an agenda on OPMs.

“Our entire @2uinc team is working day and night alongside the leadership of some of the world’s greatest colleges and universities to do everything we can to support them through this crisis,” Paucek said.

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University therapist records considered as Title IX violation evidence

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 00:00

A Title IX lawsuit by a former student accused of sexual assault has garnered the attention of legal experts, who are troubled by a magistrate judge’s decision to allow a university therapist’s client records to be made available as evidence.

The conversations between a Syracuse University therapist, said to have served as both a mental health counselor and adviser to an alleged victim of sexual assault, and her student client, should be disclosed because the “interests of justice substantially outweigh the need for confidentiality,” wrote Andrew Baxter, a magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, in a March 25 decision about the records. Baxter’s order can be appealed until April 8, or else a redacted version of the therapy records will be made available to all parties involved in the lawsuit this month, he wrote.

Syracuse itself created the risk of having to disclose counseling records by combining the “therapeutic role of counselors” with “the procedural role of advisors” in its counseling center’s Sexual and Relationship Violence Response Team, or SRVRT, wrote Michael Thad Allen, the accused student’s attorney, in a February brief to Baxter. Allen argues his client was treated unfairly under Syracuse's processes for investigating claims of sexual misconduct under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education institutions that receive federal funding.

The university contends that the disclosure could both violate New York’s state law protecting confidential mental health records and deter future victims of sexual assault from seeking help or reporting incidents. Without a guarantee of confidentiality, the frequency of counseling visits would decline and “students would be left to suffer in silence,” wrote Brittany Lawrence, an attorney at the firm Barclay Damon and counsel to the university, in her brief sent to Baxter.

While the district court decision would not set a precedent of universities being obligated to share counseling records (this responsibility is left to federal appeals courts), Baxter’s order is concerning on a broad basis for the example it could set, said Jake Sapp, deputy Title IX coordinator and compliance officer at Austin College in Sherman, Tex. Sapp conducts regular Title IX research for the Stetson University Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy.

“If this becomes a new thing, where Title IX attorneys are able to get their hands on these records, that’s going to chill reporters going to counseling resources whether or not they file a claim,” Sapp said.

This argument, echoed by Syracuse, is "hypothetical" and "neither established in evidence nor relevant" to the case currently before the court, which is examining whether the male student received a fair process, Allen wrote in his brief. The university's claim that the records disclosure would dissuade students from reporting sexual assault and harassment is “at best disingenuous,” he said in an interview.

“The best thing Syracuse could do to encourage complaints with real substance is to adjudicate the complaints correctly and fairly, which was not done in my client’s case,” Allen said.

The lawsuit, filed by a former Syracuse graduate student who was expelled for allegedly raping a female student in 2016, accuses the university of conducting a Title IX investigation and sanctioning process that discriminates against male students, which led to what he claims was an “erroneous” expulsion from the university in 2017, according to court records. Attorneys for the male student, called John Doe, and Syracuse have been arguing since early 2019 in district court about the case, which also includes claims that the university failed to give Doe adequate notice and a fair Title IX proceeding, as stated in Syracuse’s handbook on student conduct.

The complainant, a female student called “RP” in court records, initiated an investigation of the alleged rape with the Syracuse Police Department but later withdrew it, according to Doe’s lawsuit. Two months after, Doe said Syracuse began a Title IX investigation into the two students’ third sexual encounter, which he claims was entirely consensual, after RP sought support from a licensed therapist on the SRVRT, which provides counseling to students who have experienced sexual or relationship violence.

This turn of events suggests the therapist, Tekhara Watson, “recruited” RP to file a Title IX complaint with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, Inclusion, and Resolution Services, where it handles violations of Title IX, Allen wrote to the court. The question now is whether Syracuse should be required to provide Watson’s communications with RP as evidence, given Watson’s role as both a therapist for mental health treatment and an adviser to RP on her reporting options.

In her argument against disclosure of the records, Lawrence, counsel for Syracuse, referenced New York’s Mental Hygiene Law, which states, “Information about patients or clients reported … at office facilities shall not be a public record and shall not be released by the offices or its facilities to any person or agency outside of the offices.” But the law includes an exception for “an order of a court of record requiring disclosure upon a finding by the court that the interests of justice significantly outweigh the need for confidentiality,” which would be the case in Baxter’s decision.

Baxter, who already reviewed Watson's records, also said the court had "carefully and stringently redacted" some sections, so that only "advice that related to reporting options and procedures" through Title IX is disclosed.

"The more extensive portions of the records that constitute therapy or treatment records shall not be disclosed to the parties," he wrote in the decision.

The court’s reliance on a university therapist’s account of sharing of resources for clients who may have been sexually assaulted as a reason for records disclosure “is definitely cause for alarm,” said Sarah Nesbitt, a policy and advocacy organizer for Know Your IX, a network of student organizers that supports survivors of sexual violence. Nesbitt declined to comment on the facts of the Syracuse case specifically but wrote in an email that “providing reporting options in response to a client’s disclosure of violence fits comfortably within the scope of counselors’ professional ethics.”

“The possibility that a survivor’s confidential mental health records could be exposed in the future threatens to massively chill help-seeking,” Nesbitt said. “We already know that most survivors never report their experiences to authorities because of a desire to keep that information private. If seeking mental health support carried the same risk of exposure, survivors would almost certainly react the same way and choose not to seek those services.”

The magistrate’s decision to go into a therapist’s confidential client records is “very unusual,” unless there’s a threat of imminent danger, said Peter Lake, director of the Stetson center for higher education law. Courts have been reluctant to reveal such records, and when they do, there are health and safety risks involved, he said.

“When someone in the psychotherapist community gets wind of this, they’ll go off,” Lake said.

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Roundup: Distance education rules, relaxed admissions and a polite bear

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 00:00

Well, I made it through the day without seeing any stupid April Fools' stuff, so you all get a treat.

We live in a society, as demonstrated by this helpful bear.

Grizzly bear casually fixing a fallen safety cone as they walk down the road pic.twitter.com/c4klDbdGOJ

— Nature is Lit (@NaturelsLit) April 1, 2020

Need some fun Zoom backgrounds to make you forget we're in the apocalypse? Here you go.

iconic zoom backgrounds: a thread

keep it going pic.twitter.com/GU54B97tiR

— Shell (@BeeShellll) March 31, 2020

Finally, if you are like me and binge-watched Tiger King on Netflix this weekend, here is somewhat of a happy ending for you: many of the animals kept by Joe Exotic were rescued by an animal sanctuary in Colorado.

On to the news.

The U.S. Department of Education released the proposed final rules for distance education (what timing). The public has 30 days to comment on the proposed rules, which would include emphasizing demonstrated learning over seat time, define "regular and substantive" interaction between students and instructors, and encourage employer participation in developing programs, among other things.

Many private student loan lenders are allowing borrowers to suspend payments for up to three months, although it's not clear whether they will also waive interest.

The University of California and California State University systems are relaxing admissions requirements in light of the pandemic. The University of California system is suspending letter grade requirements and waiving standardized testing requirements for 2021 admissions.

Moody's Investors Service predicts that the costs higher education will face from the coronavirus far exceeds what's included for the industry in the stimulus package.

Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don’t blame you):

This spring's remote learning won't work for the fall. Colleges are preparing to get better at online, should the pandemic continue, Doug Lederman writes.

College hiring freezes have begun, Colleen Flaherty reports.

Kery Murakami wrote about the differing views on canceling student loan debt.

News From Elsewhere

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on what graduate students are going through in all this.

EdSource reported on nursing students joining the fight against the coronavirus, but without waivers for hands-on training requirements.

Percolating Thoughts

This is a time when everyone has an opinion. As journalists, we try not to have opinions, but we've gathered some interesting ones from others.

Two higher-ed experts predict a backlash to remote learning.

A Harvard University Ph.D. candidate urges institutions to not forget graduate students in The Chronicle.

Here's an interesting Twitter thread on state funding, online education costs and what the future will look like.

Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.

We’ll continue bringing you the news you need in this crazy time. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.

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Scores of colleges announce faculty hiring freezes in response to coronavirus

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 00:00

Higher education is COVID-19-positive. And in the parlance of triage, the patient needs emergent care.

At many institutions, that means getting just enough instruction and support online to be able to operate tomorrow, and having enough money to do so. Everything else can wait, including faculty hiring. Already, scores of colleges and universities have announced hiring freezes for this year fiscal year and the next one.

“Institutional leaders are trying to do the prudent thing and trying to take control of some of the aspects of the situation that they’re able to control, and that includes things like job actions and hiring freezes,” said Kevin McClure, assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “It’s about managing the situation now to minimize potential financial impacts later.”

In other words, McClure said, “Many of us would prefer to do hiring freezes now and postpone [capital] projects if it means we can avoid layoffs later.”

The uncertainties surrounding coronavirus certainly give pause: When will it abate and how will enrollments be affected? Will state funding take a nosedive and will donations dry up given the worsening economy? Previous recessions have seen a rise in enrollment by would-be workers without jobs, but what will a recession in the middle of a pandemic look like?

No Immunity From Uncertainty

For wealthier institutions, all these questions throw the financial viability of growth and previously calculated risks -- such as adding new programs and faculty -- up in the air. For less resourced institutions, these questions put their very futures at risk. And so the colleges and universities to announce hiring freezes thus far range from endowment-rich Ivies to smaller, less stable private colleges to flagship and regional publics. No one is immune from the question marks.

Richard Locke, Brown University’s provost, and Deborah Chernow, the university's vice president for finance and administration, wrote in a memo last week that all of Brown's faculty and staff hiring is suspended through next summer.

“This is not an easy decision to make,” they wrote, “but it is warranted to ensure that we have the resources to continue to engage in exceptional teaching, research and service; be an employer of choice and support our current faculty and staff; and partner with Providence and Rhode Island to support increasing local community needs.”

In another example, Joan Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and Ken Horstman, interim vice president for human resources there, announced that they are “looking down the road at the acute need to work together to ensure proper fiscal stewardship of the university. We are asking that departments make no new hires at this time.”

Minnesota also asked departments with “current hires preparing to start work at the university” to consider delaying their start dates.

What does that mean, exactly? Minnesota’s HR office advised that “delaying a start date might be justified for a variety of reasons such as to allow time to obtain equipment needed to enable new employees to work from home, to allow time to plan a productive onboarding and orientation processes, and to make needed adjustments to responsibilities to ensure new employee productivity and likelihood for success.” This guidance, the department said, “is particularly focused on ensuring consideration of the activities that may need to happen prior to a start date.”

A spokesperson for Minnesota noted that the hiring freeze is “not absolute.” Exempt categories include those for COVID-19-related positions in direct care, research and support, along with mission-essential personnel and those positions fully funded by grants, foundations or other external resources.

Like some other colleges and universities that have frozen hiring, Minnesota also has announced a suspension of bonuses, “one-off” pay changes and job reclassifications.

“We understand and appreciate that many employees are going above and beyond their job duties and you want to reward them,” Gabel and Horstman’s letter said. “We are all grateful for their efforts.” Yet focus must be “on the public health and operational challenges ahead of us.”

Robert Zemsky, higher education division chair at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures Across a Crowded Market, said he regularly speaks to a group of college presidents as a kind of “remote crisis team.”

Those presidents are talking about refunding students and asking, “If this totally FUBARs all of our admissions cycles, are we going to open in September?” Zemsky said. Read: they are not talking about faculty hiring.

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, agreed that “With so many unknowns, institutions are doing the right thing by freezing or carefully scrutinizing every current and potential search.”

The “level of confidence” that administrators have about coming fiscal year budgets is not what it was even a few weeks ago, Brantley said. “The financial challenges impacting institutions for this academic year will undoubtedly impact our budgets for next year.”

Systemic Collapse?

Even if administrators are making the right calls, the hiring freezes have implications for an already brutal tenure-track job market. Next year’s hiring cycle could be nonexistent. As for this year, many searches were wrapped up prior to the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Those professors will presumably start in the fall, as planned. But some searches were ongoing.

Dessie Lee Clark, who recently earned her doctorate in community sustainability from Michigan State University, was thrilled to make it onto several short lists and receive campus visit invites this year. The search committee for one job she’s particularly interested in seems to be trying to find a way to complete the process virtually, she said. Information is generally hard to come by, however, with seemingly interchangeable references to hiring freezes and chills and search cancellations.

In one sense, Clark said, this “feels awful. It’s so unprecedented that no one can really give you advice on how to deal with the market right now.” On the other hand, she added, “We are all in it together. So there is some solidarity around the fact this is happening to us collectively and it’s not personal.”

For current faculty members, hiring freezes mean another year of unauthorized faculty searches. Nick Fleisher, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and president of its American Association of University Professors chapter, said his department’s requests for a faculty search were already rebuffed prior to COVID-19 due to budget constraints. Building his department’s full-time faculty roster back up to nine, where it was two years ago, from seven, where it is now, is that much more of a pipe dream now.

At the department level, Fleisher said that having fewer professors means not being able to offer as rich of a graduate program in linguistics as the faculty would like. Not even the state’s flagship, Madison, has a graduate program in linguistics, he said, and so there is pressure to create a program that meets the state’s needs.

The vast majority of Milwaukee’s departments are in the same shape: Fleisher said the university has lost about 15 percent of its professors in four years, due in part to changes to the state’s tenure system, while hiring has been minimal due to declining enrollment.

Nevertheless, Fleisher said his administration has been “thoughtful, detailed and responsive” to faculty members’ various concerns about the hiring freeze, a related suspension of discretionary raises and a voluntary retirement program.

As hard as it is to swallow, he understands. Across academe, however, he said he worried that hiring freezes -- however well communicated to tenure-line faculty members -- will mean even more uncertainty for adjuncts around hiring. That is, administrators will eventually move out of this first triage phase and begin to think about staffing the next few terms, possibly with little notice.

Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor and founder of the academic career consultancy The Professor Is In, started a crowdsourced list of institutions that are freezing hiring. She’s also already seen some questionable behavior on the part of institutions concerning tenure-track jobs. Verbal offers that had progressed to negotiation have been revoked.

Previously, a similar move might have led to naming and shaming the institution. Not now.

“There is no pushback,” Kelsky said. “This is systemic collapse.”

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Progressives were divided over widespread cancellation of student debt in stimulus

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 00:00

Three Tuesdays ago, in a building on New York University’s campus, Robert Shireman, director of higher education excellence and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, was supposed to be part of a debate over whether the government should cancel student debt.

Shireman, a skeptic of the idea, was supposed to go up against one of the leading advocates of the idea, Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform, as part of series of debates sponsored by NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

It was a simpler time, before social distancing and hospitals overflowing with coronavirus patients. In just the three weeks since, the world has changed. The subject of that night’s purely academic debate would reach the halls of Congress, with stakes much bigger than the bragging rights after a debate.

Dozens of left-of-center advocates and higher education policy experts privately engaged in their own debate over debt cancellation, divided by such questions as whether a policy, in which wealthy college graduates would be among those who’d benefit, was a high priority right now.

In a mood those participating in the conversations described as complex, the issue would also include such questions as the racial disparity in being able to go to college.

The conversations occurred in the rush of a nation trying to deal with the coronavirus crisis socially and politically.

The NYU debate, March 10, ended up being canceled “due to the evolving health and travel concerns around COVID-19,” the organizers said.

Three days later, on March 13, President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency as fears of the coronavirus crisis sent the stock market into a dive.

Four days after that, as Congress was finishing up a second stimulus bill that provided for more paid family leave, and starting work on what would be the $2 trillion package signed into law Friday -- and though it would be no easy sell in the Republican-controlled Senate -- advocates hurriedly began trying to figure out among themselves to what extent they thought debt cancellation should be a priority.

By that time, all were working from home, and in a series of conference calls and emails, with pets and infants in the background, it was clear that even among progressives, there’s a wide range of opinions about the idea of the government simply canceling student debt.

“We met by phone because we’re all on lockdown,” said Ashley Harrington, federal advocacy director at the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer group supportive of large-scale debt cancellation, who was involved in the conversation.

Shireman and others interviewed said they wouldn’t describe the discussions as heated. “Nobody’s been fighting -- it was more an acknowledgment that there’s a range of views among progressive organizations about how far to go in terms of student loan relief,” he said.

Still, there are strong feelings on both sides.

Some progressives, like Shireman, said they remain concerned that widespread debt cancellation, which some groups are urging, doesn’t target those most in need.

One participant who was involved in the conversation noted that proposals by House and Senate Democrats would involve the federal government making monthly student loan payments for those with federal loans and would guarantee their balances would be reduced by at least $10,000.

Those getting the relief would also get the $1,200 payment in the stimulus package, or a lesser amount based on a sliding scale if they make more than $75,000 annually, that participant noted.

“We’re talking about an additional $10,000 for people who had the good fortune to go to college. People who didn’t have that opportunity, and may have been laid off, only get $1,200,” said the person. Like some involved in the discussions, they agreed to be interviewed on the condition they not be named because of the sensitivities around discussing conversations between the groups.

“There’s a little bit of a tension on the left over whether we should push cancellation,” another said. “For some, debt cancellation is a big policy priority of theirs, and [the stimulus package] is a way to push that viewpoint.”

“Other nerdy wonk folks actually want to have an impact on putting money back into people’s pockets,” the second person said.

“My family doesn’t need loan relief,” Shireman said. “It should be more narrowly targeted to those based on need,” he said, citing those who are in debt after being misled by a for-profit institution about the chances of getting a well-paying job after graduation.

“It’s not a high priority to provide loan relief to lawyers and doctors who are continuing their jobs at the same salaries,” he said.

But Goldstein argued that even if cancellation helped some with higher incomes, the $10,000 of relief would mean the most to lower-income borrowers, freeing those who owe less than that from having to keep making payments. Trying to target cancellation based on income would be complicated to design and administer. Congress could always make adjustments to make the policy less regressive in the future by adjusting the tax code.

“Honestly, what I think,” Harrington said, “is that the complaints about cancellation being regressive doesn’t acknowledge there are very big differences in terms of income and wealth. I get a little frustrated because the argument doesn’t acknowledge that making an income of $80,000 goes a lot further for one person than another.”

Some making a higher income might be helping support their parents. Some African Americans with graduate degrees believe they needed the additional education just to be able to compete for jobs with white people with only bachelor's degrees. And others, despite making higher incomes, had to take on more debt than others because their parents didn’t make enough to help pay for college.

Even skeptics of broad loan cancellation, like Matthew Chingos, the Urban Institute’s vice president for education data and policy, said racial disparity in being able to afford college is a legitimate point. There’s an argument to be made to base loan cancellation on race, but it would likely run into legal and political problems, he said.

Progressives differ on how much canceling student debt would stimulate an economy buckling from business closures and layoffs during the pandemic.

Chingos, in a blog post last week, argued that those who’d get more money, either through cancellation or the six-month, interest-free suspension of most borrowers having to make payments in the stimulus bill Congress ultimately passed last week, are those well-off enough to have signed up to make the highest payments each month.

Only two-thirds of those with student loan debt in 2016, according to the most recent data available, were making payments on their loans and would have extra cash during a pause, the analysis said Thursday.

Ninety percent of the highest-income households were paying down their loans, while only 30 percent of the lowest-income households were making payments and would have extra money by not having to make loan payments.

“It’s hard to make the argument that loan cancellation would help put money in the pockets of the people struggling with debt,” he said in an interview.

But others, like Kyle Southern, policy and advocacy director for higher education and workforce for the advocacy group Young Invincibles, argue that other studies have shown loan cancellation would increase the nation’s GDP and create jobs. A 2018 paper from the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College called for the federal government to wipe away all $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt, arguing it would stimulate the overall economy. That paper acknowledged that the largest loan balances are held by the highest earners but said that the degree to which student debt is held by high earners has diminished.

Particularly for young people, knowing that their balances are decreasing even if they don’t have to make payments would give them the peace of mind to spend money, including their stimulus checks, now. Otherwise, Southern said, they’d hold on to the money for when they would have to make payments again, particularly because it might take time to find jobs as the economy slowly gears back up after the crisis.

Ultimately, most of the groups, including Goldstein’s Americans for Financial Reform and Young Invincibles, ended up backing proposals by Democrats in the House and the Senate, guaranteeing at least $10,000 of relief.

The House Democrats’ proposal would have also made payments each month of those with private student loans, guaranteeing up to $10,000 of relief.

An aide on the Democrat-controlled House Education and Labor Committee disputed the $10,000 of relief was a “compromise” figure. Rather, Democrats in both houses chose it, the aide said, because the majority of borrowers who are so struggling with their loans that they go into default have just under $10,000 worth of debt.

“By setting the number at $10,000, we are alleviating borrowers who are most in need,” the aide said.

But several people involved in the discussion between progressive groups viewed the $10,000 figure as a compromise. Some groups who wanted more cancellation were willing to accept it, while others with reservations could live with it as well.

Young Invincibles has backed Democratic Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plan, which would go much further than the Democratic proposals -- forgiving $50,000 of debt for those making less than $100,000. Those making between $100,000 to $200,000 would have had less debt forgiven, based on a sliding scale. But they too backed the $10,000 cancellation, as an improvement over Republican plans to put in law the Trump administration’s executive order deferring payments without interest.

A representative of one group said they preferred Congress take a more nuanced approach that targeted people of color and low-income borrowers instead of "the blunt instrument." But given the hurry to put a stimulus bill together, and the fact that some low-income borrowers and people of color would no doubt benefit, they were willing to go along with it.

Some other groups, like Education Reform Now, though, decided to stay neutral on the debt cancellation provisions of the bill, also favoring a more targeted approach. “We'd like to see 100 percent forgiveness of those ripped off by for-profits and bad-actor, high-priced colleges with unconscionably high dropout rates,” emailed Michael Dannenberg, the group’s director of strategic initiatives for policy.

Ultimately, no debt relief was included in the bill. Advocates like Goldstein say the differing views among progressives were less a factor than strong Republican objection to the idea. Republican senators had voiced some of the same misgivings as some progressives.

“Democrats are trying to reduce student loans by $10,000. What the hell has that got to do with the virus?” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, told Fox News on March 22, as the $2 trillion package was being negotiated.

Instead the bill excuses most borrowers from making payments for six months, interest-free, and bars collection agencies from garnishing wages, tax refunds and Social Security benefits.

Southern said he believes there is broad consensus, though, that the bill doesn’t go far enough and most groups support canceling debt in some form. “That's why I said after the Senate’s passage that Congress had met its absolute base responsibility of doing no immediate harm. That's all pushing loan payments down the road will do,” he said.

It’s unclear where the conversation between the groups goes from here. With the Senate and House on recess until at least April 20, Chingos said it buys time to come up with a more targeted approach to canceling loans.

But one who was involved in the discussions said, “It seems like people have gone to their separate camps.”

Shireman, though, said groups are just now starting to talk about how to move forward after last week’s debate over the $2 trillion bill. “I think we’re all just coming up for air after the craziness of last week. It was just insane. I never needed a weekend more in my life,” he said.

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Liberty University, long known for online education, draws criticism for letting students remain on campus amid coronavirus outbreak

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 00:00

Liberty University has upset some students, parents and faculty with a decision to let students return to campus after spring break, despite concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But it's unlikely the private evangelical university in Lynchburg, Va., will face legal liability for this move. Instead, like many other decisions made by Liberty's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., an early and avid supporter of Donald Trump's presidential run, Liberty's actions are playing out in the press and the court of public opinion.

After Ralph Northam, Virginia's governor, announced on March 15 a ban on gatherings of 100 people or more, many colleges in the state closed their campuses and transitioned students to remote learning. Liberty instead welcomed students back after spring break but held most classes online to comply with the governor's ban.

The decision stood out in part because Liberty has touted the fact that it is one of the largest online universities in the country, and its online program has significantly bolstered its finances. Northam has criticized the move, saying that Liberty is sending mixed messages about the virus and asking Falwell to reconsider his decisions, according to the Shore Daily News.

Treney Tweedy, mayor of Lynchburg, also called Falwell "reckless," according to The New York Times.

Now, Virginia has issued a stay-at-home order until June. Some Liberty students are showing signs of COVID-19 infections, and at least one has tested positive. Hundreds of students who came back to campus have returned home.

Falwell has pushed back on media reports of the decision and its consequences, accusing the Times of lying.

While the decision to bring back students to Lynchburg has been widely criticized, some experts think it's unlikely Liberty could be held liable for the move because students aren't being forced to return to campus.

"Many people are living in apartment houses and other residences that are as densely populated as any college residence hall, and if the university has good health services and provides the students with resources and support should they become ill, then it might be hard to prove that the institution was negligent," said John Lombardi, a former president and chancellor at several universities.

He doubts that any state governor would want to make all students leave their campuses, since many continue to care for students who can't afford travel home.

"Many university students of residential campuses currently live in nearby off-campus housing with multiple occupants, or apartments with mostly student occupants," he said. "These students have not been ordered to return to a home residence in some other city, and so they remain in place, continuing with their courses online."

It's difficult to determine whether Liberty's decision violates the governor's order, Lombardi said, adding that any legal issues that may arise from the situation would be for the courts to decide.

Liberty officials declined an interview with Inside Higher Ed, instead sending a list of answers to common questions the college is facing.

To comply with Northam's most recent stay-at-home order, the university is closing down remaining in-person instruction at the School of Aviation, according to the statement. Students who wish to return to their dorm rooms for the first time will have to self-quarantine for two weeks at a housing annex. Faculty members can teach courses and hold office hours from home.

Liberty will continue to use the same procedures it put in place to be compliant with the ban on gatherings, including providing food for carryout only and limiting the number of students who enter certain spaces. The state's Department of Health did a surprise inspection of the campus last week and found it was compliant with the governor's previous order, banning large gatherings. That was before Northam issued the stay-at-home order for the state Monday.

The university's decision to let students return to campus will not be reconsidered, despite the governor's new order, according to the statement Liberty provided.

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Roundup: Title IX, Zoom and Lindsay Lohan

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 00:00

Finally. A new month.

Welcome to April, all of which will likely consist of shuffling around our respective homes and trying to live vicariously through our old Instagram posts (if we're lucky).

The month is already starting off a weird note. Lindsay Lohan is apparently resurfacing with new music.

I'm back!
https://t.co/xQCrvZsVJR pic.twitter.com/DKQ4tzCAUR

— Lindsay Lohan (@lindsaylohan) March 31, 2020

For your palate cleanser, here is a dog petting other dogs. Very relatable.

This is Ruby. She likes to pet the other dogs at daycare. 14/10 extremely relatable pic.twitter.com/5KgOnL5kwW

— WeRateDogs® (@dog_rates) March 31, 2020

Let's get to the news.

U.S. senators are asking Betsy DeVos, education secretary, to delay issuing a final rule for Title IX in light of, well, everything.

Colleges might not be able to use coronavirus relief funds to reimburse their contracts with online program management companies to help them transition to online instruction during the pandemic.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is letting spring Division I athletes compete for another season in light of the coronavirus. Teams can provide scholarships for more athletes than is usually allowed.

Illinois is forecasting for its budget, with the caveat that we are in unprecedented times and who knows what will happen. The forecast predicts the state will lose more revenue than it did during the Great Recession. This is troublesome for higher ed, which in many places is still recovering from the last recession's budget cuts.

Professors at the University of California, Riverside, have shared tutorials for how to use Zoom to run a class. Meanwhile, New York's attorney general is requesting policy information from the web-conferencing service, citing security concerns.

Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don’t blame you):

Students and faculty are helping each other get through this tough time, Greta Anderson reports.

Lilah Burke wrote about how the move to online is going at the University of Washington.

I wrote a story focused on student parents, who are getting hit with a double whammy by the pandemic.

News From Elsewhere

The graduates of 2020 are entering a rough job market, The Conversation reports.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on how parenting professors are juggling their duties right now.

A college student living on campus during the pandemic wrote up a first-person account for Slate.

Percolating Thoughts

This is a time when everyone has an opinion. As journalists, we try not to have opinions, but we've gathered some interesting ones from others.

A couple of marketers have some ideas for how to hold commencements virtually.

Here are five lessons from the past to help higher education deal with the current financial crisis, courtesy of Vanderbilt University's chancellor emeritus.

Several higher ed experts predict more permanent closures from the coronavirus in a MarketWatch op-ed.

Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.

We’ll continue bringing you the news you need in this crazy time. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.

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Faculty discuss their quick transition to online instruction

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 00:00

The University of Washington was the first major U.S. college or university to announce, amid rising concerns about the coronavirus's spread, that it would move instruction online. At that point Seattle was the epicenter of the disease in the United States.

The UW campuses were kept open for students who had nowhere else to go, but many chose to leave.

Preliminary data from the university showed occupancy on campus for this spring is about 22 to 24 percent of what it was in the fall. Though the university is enrolling more registered students this spring than last, it saw an increased number of student withdrawals after March 18, when it announced the move to remote instruction for the full spring quarter. From that day to March 29, there were 225 withdrawals, compared to 153 in the same period last year.

We checked in with faculty members at the university to ask how the transition was going for them and their students.

Successful, but Stressful

Joseph Janes, a professor in the Information School and chair of the Faculty Senate, said the move was going "about as well as you could expect." While there have been, to his knowledge, no technological disasters, faculty members in his school, like many others during this crisis, are stretched thin.

"The level of stress, the level of uncertainty and anxiety is just really high, and for understandable reasons," he said during an interview over spring break. "People are managing and doing the best they can and particularly trying to reassure students and stay in touch with students, many of whom are feeling very anxious, very stressed in a deeply uncertain time for all of us."

The University of Washington uses a quarter system. Though the original announcement by President Ana Mari Cauce said the university would be online for its winter quarter, which ended March 20, the university extended the suspension to the spring term, which begins Monday.

Janes said faculty members relied heavily on adrenaline during the last weeks of the quarter. The spring may be a bigger challenge. Moving an ongoing class online, where instructors benefit from already having a relationship with students, is one thing. Starting a class online is another, entirely.

"Now it's the long haul, and I think that's setting in," he said. "Some disciplines are going to find that easier than others."

Courses That Can't Be Adapted

Since a massive wave of colleges have now moved to online delivery, many have questioned how faculty can conduct courses in dance, social work, forestry and other disciplines that usually require fieldwork or physical presence. And, for students majoring in those fields, what will happen if these courses cannot be completed?

Jennifer Salk, who chairs UW's dance department, said that in the winter session, instructors teaching dance technique courses (such as ballet, tango or tap) simply had to grade students on the work they had already completed. The technique classes couldn't be completed online.

"Our students are dispersing all over the world," Salk said. "They might have a three-by-three space to move in. Safety and viability and integrity would be lost."

For the winter quarter, all dance technique courses, over 20 of them, were canceled, along with a few others that couldn't be adapted for online. Salk said most students who are dance majors already have the required credit for those types of courses. For the very few who don't, the department is waiving the requirement.

"There's just nothing we can do. It's not their fault," she said. "We can't make them stay an extra quarter because this happened to them."

The university offers over 7,000 courses across its three campuses. For this spring, only about 175 have been canceled.

The dance department is offering a few small, not-for-credit technique course options that are specifically designed for small spaces.

But Salk emphasized that many other dance courses can continue perfectly well online with some minor adjustments. Independent studies and capstone classes are one example, as well as an introductory dance course that already was held online. Salk herself designed the online class -- where students learn dance concepts, respond to readings and interview dancers -- about 10 years ago. All department graduate students, who previously taught technique courses, now grade students in the online class. The course is open to campus.

Help From Administrators

Salk said the university has been very helpful for faculty in figuring out technology and course design. Cauce announced that the university would be making the first week of courses free of graded assignments, giving everyone time to get to know each other and figure out the technology.

"They're doing an incredible job," Salk said. "They're doing the best they can."

Michelle Bagshaw, a lecturer in the School of Social Work and associate director of the Office of Field Education, said that in her personal experience, the transition has gone well. The university held trainings for professors on technology, online teaching and course design.

"Our dean's office really mobilized," she said. "They brought in instructors with expertise in creating and delivering online courses and offered training immediately, in addition to the deans and program faculty being available to consult with faculty about questions they have."

Faculty from the Information School also helped run trainings on software like Zoom and Panopto.

Social work as a discipline often requires practical field experience. One of the requirements for a social welfare major, for example, is structured practical learning. Though the university has had to pull students out of working physically in the community, the college has developed some remote activities students can do with local agencies to achieve the same competencies.

"Agencies are in crisis right now," Bagshaw said. "If there's anything our students can do to support them, that's our first hope."

Being Understanding About Unprecedented Challenges

Bagshaw herself is running an undergrad capstone class. She's cleared the first hurdle -- an in-class panel of experts -- by transitioning to a recorded interview that was posted online.

Janes said many faculty may be in challenging situations right now, with kids or elderly relatives at home. He says people have responded by becoming more flexible and understanding of one another.

"I don't think any of us ever thought anything like this would ever happen," he said. "It's just going to be part of the fabric of how transcripts are written, how CVs are written, how we do personnel decisions for this year."

Janes added, "This is just going to be one of those things that we carry with us for 30 years."

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Being honest with students can help prevent abrupt college closures, report says

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 00:00

When Mount Ida College -- a small, private college just outside Boston -- announced in 2018 that it would close, students were left scrambling.

The teach-out plans put in place did not cover all programs. Many students in good standing who were automatically admitted to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth couldn’t make the 70-plus-mile drive to campus each day. Students with loans received little information about discharges and were only directed to their loan servicer.

A new report from the left-leaning think tank New America examines what happened at Mount Ida and 11 other colleges that recently closed. The report, “Anticipating and Managing Precipitous College Closures,” presents ways to reduce the number of colleges that shutter without warning.

Between the 2008-09 and 2016-17 academic years, more than 300 colleges in the United States shut their doors, according to the report. Some closures are inevitable, the report assumes, and as the new coronavirus continues to inflict its toll on college finances, experts agree that more colleges will be forced to close in coming years.

The biggest takeaway from the report, according to two of its co-authors, Amy Laitinen and Clare McCann, both of New America, is that regulating bodies, including accreditors, federal and state departments of higher education, and state governments, need to pay closer attention to the financial health of the institutions under their watch. Laitinen is director for higher education and McCann is deputy director for federal higher education policy at the think tank's education policy program.

Financial responsibility tests often lag by several years, meaning the data are old by the time they are released. Current tests are also sometimes gamed by institutions, according to the report. The Government Accountability Office found that the Education Department’s financial composite score “has predicted only half of closures since the academic year 2010-11.”

Significant declines in enrollment and retention rates, program and course cancellations, and underperformance on student achievement could all be signs of financial distress at an institution, the report states.

Effective leadership is also critical for keeping colleges open, said Jamienne Studley, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, a regional accreditor, and co-author of the report.

"Every story is different," Studley said. "Institutional failures range from tiny independent colleges to enterprises within complex corporate entities."

She added that accreditors and other regulatory bodies must judge “the ability of the board to assess the situation, and not to be clouded by factors ranging from corporate profitability to emotional attachment to the history of the school.”

Once a closure is definite, colleges can take several steps to inform students, faculty and staff and provide them with adequate planning time and resources.

The report recommends a teach-out agreement that requires colleges to follow through, as opposed to just a plan​. Ensuring student records are accessible and without holds is also a must.

Ed Wingenbach stepped up to helm Hampshire College in July of last year after a previous administration explored mergers, prompting some of the college's backers to fear it was headed for closure. He’s since focused on righting the ship and establishing Hampshire for a long future. Still, he is creating contingency plans so that in the event of a possible closure, students aren’t left hanging. These plans include agreements with the state department of education​ about student records access.

For colleges trying to head off a potential closure, Wingenbach stressed the need for realistic goal setting.

Hampshire leadership had to “come up with a realistic, viable business plan that worked from the most conservative assumptions about revenue on every level and stretch that out over five years,” he said. “I think what a lot of colleges do, when they think they’re in trouble or headed for trouble, is they build future projections that assume that they’re going to bring in more students and that those students are going to bring in more net revenue per student, and that their costs will go down.”

Keeping students and staff informed of changes is also crucial, according to the New America report. New federal regulations will require colleges to notify students and staff after their accreditors ask for a teach-out plan.

“Students should also be notified of other high-risk changes to the school’s structure, such as mergers, changes in ownership, and changes in control,” the report states. “And colleges should be required to provide disclosures to students by their accreditors when agency actions are taken.”

Laitinen and McCann emphasized that the steps listed in their report should be considered before a closure is around the corner, not after.

The new coronavirus will heighten financial challenges for many colleges.

“All sectors and all types [of colleges] are going to be impacted” by the virus, said David Tandberg, vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and another co-author of the report. “Those that are coming into this crisis in an already precarious situation are going to be the ones that are most impacted.”

Not only could the coronavirus yield more college closures, but more of them could be seemingly out of the blue.

“Because of the urgency of this situation, schools are being granted a lot of flexibility” from regulating bodies, Laitinen said. “Right now, we may be on the brink of more precipitous closures.”

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Mental health support systems for coping with pandemic

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 00:00

As college students and faculty members face an onslaught of stressors related to the disruptions in their lives caused by the coronavirus pandemic, they are relying on each other for connection and coping strategies to help ease the weight of the public health crisis on their mental health.

While administrators and other employees are undoubtedly also affected by the dramatic departure of people from college and university campuses across the country, the upheaval has been most felt by students and faculty members who interacted more frequently and consistently -- and had more symbiotic relationships -- than others on campus.

Many students and faculty now find themselves functioning in unfamiliar terrain -- and struggling emotionally.

Colleges and universities are doing what they can to quickly shift counseling services for students from in-person therapy to telephone or video sessions. The technology is considered an effective replacement -- at least for now -- for the human connection that many students seek and need, and an important tool to lessen depressive symptoms, said Erica Riba, senior adviser for the Jed Foundation’s JED Campus program, one of the leading mental health and suicide prevention programs for colleges and universities, with about 300 member institutions.

She said some student feel a sense of loss after being told to leave their campus and return home to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“There’s loss of identity -- ‘Who am I as a student, now that I’m trying to figure out what’s next and what all this means,’” Riba said. “This whole idea of social distancing is obviously important, but what we’re trying to point out is physically distancing. The social connection is very important right now.”

She said classes and coursework might be the only way students interact with each other while social distancing measures are in place, and she recommends that instructors look for ways to encourage students to share how the pandemic has impacted them, such as facilitating a discussion board.

This was one of the first ways Margaret Price, an English professor and director of disability studies at Ohio State University, gauged how her students were doing after the university ended in-person classes and announced it would move to online-only instruction.

Price said some instructors had suggested that the university conclude the semester early and give students a break, but she disagreed. Her special-topics English course, Rhetorics of Illness and Disability, is heavily discussion-based and very tight-knit; her students told Price they didn’t want to lose those connections amid “an avalanche of other losses” to their college experience over the last month.

“They already feel as though the world has shut down on them at an incredibly important part of their lives,” said Price, who has post-traumatic stress disorder. “A number of my students mentioned that they had paid so much for their education in financial cost and emotional sacrifices.”

Price assigned her English students to keep a private journal for the remainder of the semester and to post five excerpts from their journals that they’re comfortable sharing with the rest of the class. The assignment is part of a “mindfulness exercise” and asks students to be more aware of small details of their everyday life. She directed them to ponder such questions as: “Do you hear the birds differently? What do things smell like? What is your tactile environment indoors or outdoors?”

Faculty members who have been in touch with their students on a personal level can feel like they are “absorbing all their anxiety” and neglecting to focus on their own emotions and mental health needs, said Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. With two young children at home and a partner who was just laid off from his job, Gottschalk Druschke said she feels overwhelmed with her family and work obligations. She has insomnia and gets most of her work done around 2 a.m., which is when she noticed many others in academe are also awake and active on Twitter.

“This is awful for everybody. It really is. I’m happy that I’m still employed and my employer is treating me well, but this is tough,” Gottschalk Druschke said. “People are putting in a really, really good-faith effort. I see the faculty around me, graduate students around me, really supporting each other and challenging each other to do better -- which means doing less.”

Aside from sharing thoughts and emotions with others, simple and fun interactions through social media and videoconferencing can also be meaningful for students, said Emily Lustig, a member of the advisory board for the Support Network, a peer support and advocacy organization for student mental health, which has chapters at seven major universities.

The networks have smaller groups that typically met in person on campus weekly, where members can talk about their mental health struggles, well-being or just “be heard,” Lustig said. Some students have continued these meetings virtually, while others have sustained the support system in more informal ways, such as virtual game nights and Netflix viewing parties, she said.

“Already having a foundation in place for understanding peer support, already having a weekly group, a groove with a group leader, figuring out how to share what’s going on in your life and learning how to listen to others is really important at this time,” Lustig said. “There’s a lot less trust building involved, and the structure for how it works implicitly is already in place.”

The Wolverine Support Network at the University of Michigan has held meetings to guide its group leaders for discussions with members about COVID-19-related anxiety, self-care and healthy family or roommate relationships for students in quarantine at their homes, said Hannah Connors, executive director of the network and a senior at Michigan. It was challenging to balance leading the support network on top of the “emotional pain, loss and confusion” that she was experiencing as a student, but Connors said she has been able to adjust over the last two weeks.

“People need support right now more than ever,” Connors said. “They need ways to connect with others and need community. We’ve found a way to make the best of this situation.”

But the peer-support networks are meant for listening and empathy, not for providing counseling services or advice, Lustig said. Demand for mental health services has not decreased at some colleges even though students aren't on campus. During a webinar on telehealth hosted by the American College Health Association last Friday, Jun Mitsumoto, associate medical director for primary care at New York University’s Student Health Center, described the significant level of need at his institution. He said of 952 telehealth appointments held on March 19, two-thirds were for mental health counseling.

College presidents are greatly concerned about the emotional impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on students and employees, according to an Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research survey of 172 presidents published last week. Ninety-two percent of responding presidents said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the mental health of students amid the pandemic, while 88 percent said the same of employee mental health. Nearly all student affairs officials surveyed by Inside Higher Ed before the virus made its way to the United States said they “have paid a significant amount of attention” in the last year to student mental health.

Many colleges and universities are looking to telehealth options to continue or initiate student appointments with counseling center therapists via telephone, or through online platforms such as Zoom for Healthcare and Doxy.me, which are popular with institutions that allow clinicians to meet virtually with patients, Riba said. For students with already-existing mental illnesses who have been using services, it’s important that they maintain their “supportive therapeutic relationship” with the same clinician they met with before the pandemic, Riba said.

“That would be the recommendation, but schools have to work with what they have,” Riba said. “I imagine it’s a little bit more infrequent, but people are trying their best and will check in by phone, even if it’s brief. Hopefully it’s a consistent basis of checking in and making sure that students are supported from afar.”

Videoconferencing platforms for counseling service delivery are “not easy to set up quickly from scratch,” Peter LeViness, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Richmond and board member of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, or AUCCCD, said in an email. According to the most recent survey of 571 counseling center directors, conducted by the AUCCCD in 2018, well before the coronavirus pandemic, only 11.3 percent conducted telephone counseling sessions, and 3.5 percent used video sessions.

In addition to implementing and training counseling center staff to use new technology and ensuring university malpractice insurance covers telehealth services, counseling centers also must wait for several state medical licensing boards to temporarily suspend requirements that prevent them from practicing over state lines, as many students who need appointments are out of state, LeViness wrote. He said the AUCCCD is asking federal legislators to step in.

“AUCCCD along with other national mental health-related organizations have requested the federal government to pass national legislation that would temporarily allow licensed mental health professionals to continue to provide therapy to students who are now residing in other states.”

Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has asked states to relax these licensure laws, Mei Wa Kwong, executive director for the Center for Connected Health Policy, said during the ACHA webinar. The department’s Office for Civil Rights will temporarily waive penalties related to practicing telehealth that would normally violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which protects patient health information, said a notice from HHS.

Telehealth models are “imperfect,” but “better than nothing,” said Lustig of the Support Network. The network’s board has debated the effectiveness of virtual counseling sessions and is still going back and forth about it, she said.

“The response right now is, truly, this is our only option,” Lustig said.

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Student parents are hit doubly hard by coronavirus

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 00:00

This has been a nerve-racking time for Chelsea Callender.

The 22-year-old junior at Bowie State University in Maryland had to switch her 3-year-old daughter from a childcare center to an in-home daycare last week, after the childcare center closed down due to concerns around the coronavirus. She was in the process of moving from one job to another when her old job shut down and left her without her last week of pay. The job she was planning to move to -- teaching children how to swim -- is also now shut down due to the coronavirus.

She's now relying on a second, part-time job teaching children about art. Her job hasn't yet been shut down but is giving out fewer hours because people are canceling appointments.

Meanwhile, Callender had been planning to take classes in the summer after taking this semester off to work through financial aid issues and work extra hours. She needs to turn in a financial aid appeal in May and doesn't know whether someone will be there to approve it.

On top of all of that, Callender is asthmatic, so she's worried about catching the coronavirus and becoming sick with COVID-19.

Callender isn't unique in all of this. About one-quarter of today's college students are also parents, and they've been hit with a double whammy by this pandemic.

"They were already vulnerable to begin with," said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Their economic insecurity was already pretty stark."

About nine in 10 single mothers live in poverty or with low incomes, according to Reichlin Cruse. Not only are they possibly losing their jobs in the economic crisis, they're also losing their childcare and community or college resources. And they're being asked to suddenly take courses online while also helping their children learn online.

The uncertainty of what will happen in the long term is one of the scariest things for student parents, said Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization in the D.C. metro area that focuses on college completion and success for student parents and their children.

"When campuses open back up, what will that look like? Will things return to normal?" she said. "Are we going to lose some students in the course of transition to online learning because of the lack of technology and childcare?"

Students in Generation Hope's program often deal with several issues at once, from work and childcare to housing and food insecurity, domestic violence situations and mental health problems.

"The coronavirus is now a crisis on top of so many other challenges," Lewis said.

At Montgomery College, in Maryland, faculty and staff members are taking several steps to support vulnerable students, including those who are parents, said DeRionne Pollard, president of the college.

The college has dedicated $550,000 from its operating funds and philanthropy to provide emergency support to students, as the requests for aid increase, Pollard said. Students who need it are also getting stipends to secure access to technology -- whether that's buying a laptop or getting Wi-Fi -- so they can continue taking classes online.

Another priority is information, Pollard said.

"In a crisis, many people don't know how to get access to the things that they need," she said. "They simply are trying to get through the day to day."

So Montgomery is taking on the role of information provider by compiling materials on its website, including a special section for student parents about how to take care of their children during this time.

The college is also planning for the future. Every day, there's a task-force meeting, Pollard said. Currently, they're looking at what to do for the summer and fall sessions. The first of the college's two summer sessions will just be online.

"It would be really foolhardy for us to say, 'Oh, we're going to be done with this in May,'" she said.

Staff are also putting in time with faculty to help them understand what resources there are for students, as well as asking instructional developers to work with them on teaching online.

Trinity Washington University is seeing some of the same issues with its students, especially with the need for access to computers, according to Patricia McGuire, president of the university.

"Right now, it feels like a snowstorm where people are staying [home]," McGuire said. "My feeling is that next week, demand will go up."

The main goal right now is to try to keep stress levels low, she said. To help students succeed, Trinity might need to elongate the semester, use pass/fail options or let student take incompletes with no penalty.

"Academically, while we want to focus on still having quality and rigor, we want to be as flexible as possible so that no one is penalized because of this extremely bizarre situation," McGuire said.

Cuyamaca College, a two-year college in the San Diego area, is just returning from spring break and trying to assess what students need, according to Sheryl Ashley, the CalWORKS program coordinator for the college.

All the students in the CalWORKS program are low-income parents who receive services from the county in exchange for meeting required participation hours, either through working or going to school.

College staff know these students will likely need help getting computers and internet access to continue their courses online, and Ashley hopes the county will provide that. Her staff of six counselors is surveying and calling the 400 or so students in the program to determine their other needs.

While the college is loosening some requirements and penalties, students still have to comply with financial aid requirements. They also have to turn in their required participation hours to the county, which they used to submit to Ashley's office and now have to do at home while also taking care of their children and dealing with financial losses.

"I'm just afraid that we're going to lose students, especially with our population," Ashley said. "This is an added layer of stress on low-income students that they don't need."

Thinking about how all of the pieces of students' lives fit together is what institutions need to be doing, according to Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates.

"We're asking these people to really juggle a lot of things all at once," she said. "The communication that's needed between a student and their institution to support them in this time is critical."

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Roundup: FBI recommendations, funding simulation and a dribbling turtle

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 00:00

It's week 1,000 of the quarantine, which looks like it could stretch to June (aka 10 years from now). We've got a pandemic relief package, overflowing morgues in New York City, people stuck abroad and a major pharmaceutical company working on a vaccine for COVID-19.

We need some palate cleansers.

Here is a turtle playing basketball for all the disappointed March Madness fans. (Personally, I think this is better.)

5 days out of his winter hibernation & Hurricane is getting into his garden lockdown football exercise this morning...he’ll be posting his boxercise routine & tomorrow!
#teacher5aday #exercise #notice pic.twitter.com/xUMGL6h5ya

— Patrick Ottley-O'Connor (@ottleyoconnor) March 26, 2020

The Seattle Times did a roundup of raves (minus the rants) for people helping people during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tired of reading coronavirus news? Same. Here's a nice, long break from High Country News about indigenous land and land-grant universities.

Let's get to the news.

The American Council on Education created a simulation to estimate what institutions will get what funds from the $14 billion allocated to higher education in the coronavirus stimulus bill.

Thomas Edison State University in New Jersey is cutting tuition. The cut is temporary and targeted at undergraduates who are not enrolled in a degree program and are taking summer courses.

Remember our story on "Zoombombing"? The FBI weighed in after some Massachusetts schools reported nasty incidents. The agency recommends checking your privacy settings, sending meeting information to participants only and using the updated version of Zoom.

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University are upset. They found out the university was packing up and moving their belongings out of residence halls through a viral video. The institution apologized for not communicating the decision to clear the space so it can be used to house coronavirus patients if the nearby hospital overflows.

Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don’t blame you):

Scott Jaschik wrote about a survey that indicates trouble for admissions in the months ahead.

It's a bad time for anyone to start a career. But for researchers, who usually need labs to work, this is an unprecedented time, Elizabeth Redden reports.

Scott also has a story on colleges moving to test optional in these turbulent times.

News From Elsewhere

Open Campus created a visualization of where the emergency funds in the relief bill may go in higher education.

Not all colleges are refunding students for room and board costs after shutting down their campuses, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, wrote about the fall semester for Forbes.

Percolating Thoughts

This is a time when everyone has an opinion. As journalists, we try not to have opinions, but we've gathered some interesting ones from others.

A former assistant director of admissions at Yale University has some advice for high schoolers worried about how to stand out in applications when their extracurriculars are at a standstill.

"Confessions of a Community College Dean" muses about how Zoom may change meeting etiquette.

Now is a time for college presidents to lead and not follow, according to West Virginia University's president in Education Dive.

Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.

We’ll continue bringing you the news you need in this crazy time. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.

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Colleges start new academic programs

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 00:00
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"Nonessential" research has halted on many campuses

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 00:00

Empty classrooms are a defining feature of the coronavirus crisis on college campuses. Empty research labs are another.

Many major research universities have halted all but essential research in what amounts to an unprecedented stoppage of academic science in modern memory. Among the universities that have shut down all nonessential research operations are Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities, as well as the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania, among others.

Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, a national organization focused on graduate education and research, said universities appear to be converging on a set of agreed-upon practices for research during the public health crisis.

“Those practices really involve trying to minimize social interaction but maintain what are called essential research functions,” such as certain experiments involving animals and ongoing clinical trials, she said. "There may be other examples of research that's deemed essential, but it appears that the practice is for campuses to evaluate those on a case-by-case basis and even for those that are deemed essential to try to minimize the number of individuals who are tending to the animals or caring for the experiments."

Some have questioned the wisdom of the shutdowns.

"Social distancing is crucial. But do we really need to shut down research labs? For some postdocs/young PIs [principal investigators] this could be catastrophic," Jonathan Kipnis, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, wrote on Twitter March 17. "Biomedical research isn’t ‘dispensable’ and there are alternative measures. Wearing protective gear? Dividing lab into non-overlapping ‘shifts’?"

Kipnis, who declined a request for an interview, subsequently asked in a second tweet what would happen if the shutdowns lasted for a year.

"Can you look in the eyes of all your trainees/staff and promise them that after a year of inactivity you can still fully pay their salary?" he asked.

The original tweet by Kipnis garnered 191 responses, many from people arguing that yes, the shutdowns are essential not just for the safety of researchers but also for that of others.

“I am one of these young PIs, and I am admittedly terrified about the consequences to my research program … but my research is NOT more important than protecting my community,” wrote Melissa Kane, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infection Diseases at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Kane, who studies immune responses to viral infections, said in an interview that she has frozen all the cell lines she can and regularly goes to her lab to attend to the lab’s mouse colony. An undergraduate research assistant has gone home for the semester, and her lab's two research technicians are working from home, though she said there isn’t a lot of work they can do from there.

“It took me months and months to get the lab set up, and I’m now looking at the possibility of redoing that, which is really scary with a small staff in particular,” Kane said. “It’s going to be a lot harder for junior people to get back up and running. On the other hand, a lot of other people are in that boat so I also feel rather fortunate that I study immunity to viral infections. Not this type of virus [the coronavirus] -- I study retroviruses like HIV -- but it’s something I don’t see interest waning in in the future, to be honest.”

The financial cost of halting research is another concern for junior lead investigators like Kane.

"I’m paying my technicians right now, and they are not working," she said. "But again, I actually didn’t find that choice all that difficult to make in the long run. I just think it’s 100 percent the right thing to do.”

The National Institutes of Health has said it will allow recipients of grants to charge for costs related to payment of salaries and benefits during periods in which research is not performed due to COVID-19 as long as the grantee’s institution allows such payments. The National Science Foundation similarly announced this week that recipients of grants “are authorized to continue to charge salaries, stipends, and benefits to currently active NSF awards consistent with the recipients’ policy of paying salaries (under unexpected or extraordinary circumstances) from all funding sources, Federal and non-Federal.”

However, the funding agency noted, “Recipients must not assume that supplemental funding will be available should the charging of such costs or other fees result in a shortage of funds to eventually carry out the project.”

Four major higher education associations -- the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Council on Education -- sent a March 19 letter to congressional leaders asking for supplemental funding for research in the stimulus bill. The stimulus bill, which was signed by President Trump on Friday, included additional funding for COVID-19 related research, but did not include money associations had requested to help with costs related to shutting down and restarting labs. The associations noted a number of areas where COVID-19 is likely to cause unanticipated costs, including in relation to costs associated with salaries and benefits for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, principal investigators and other research personnel whose salaries are funded by federal grants, as well as unanticipated costs associated with ramping down and ramping back up research.

Such ramp-down and ramp-up costs, the groups wrote, could include things such as loss or destruction of biological samples, disposal of hazardous materials, the care or replacement of animal subjects, and “restarting experiments that could not be completed due to the closure of research facilities, inability of personnel to interact in the field, or missed seasonal opportunities such as plant or animal life cycles.”

Sunny Shin, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, said that with new experiments suspended, her lab had to euthanize about 200 mice, more than three-quarters of her lab's colony. "We kept the minimum number of mice necessary to keep mouse lines going, as my lab has about 24 different transgenic and knockout mouse lines," said Shin, who studies immune responses to bacterial pathogens. "I estimate that this will set my lab’s research back at least six months, if not more, as we don’t know when we’ll be able to go back into our labs again."

Shin said she has a manuscript out for review and submitted for a renewal of an NIH grant, "so this will definitely affect our ability to address reviewers’ concerns," she said. "In addition, I have two senior postdocs who were planning on going on the academic job market, and they both need to do additional mouse experiments for manuscripts that they are preparing and were hoping to submit this spring. So I am very concerned that this will affect their careers."

Shin is holding virtual lab meetings with her postdocs and graduate students and trying to keep them engaged.

"I think it’s really important for the research to continue even from home," she said. "Things like data analysis, writing papers or literature reviews, reading research papers. I have a student who’s starting to write her dissertation. There’s a lot of work that can still be done from home."

She said the graduate students who work in her lab are "worried about the health of each other and their friends here in Philadelphia, and they’re concerned about how this is going to affect their research and their timelines. Some of them are senior graduate students who are in years four and five. During a time when they should be most productive in terms of doing lab work to make their way towards graduation, for some of them, this is obviously a setback. I've been trying to reassure them that having this time to read and think about their projects can be productive, too, that they shouldn’t worry about that too much.

"I’m trying to keep very positive and try to reassure everyone that obviously the health of our lab and our community is the more important thing," she added. "That’s more important than any kind of lab shutdown."

Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is keeping open a line of activity at her lab that is focused on COVID-19 diagnostic testing. But she shut down the other areas of her lab, which focus on zoonosis -- the process by which viruses that typically infect animals jump to humans -- and studies other pathogens that haven’t yet made similar jumps.

Sawyer's lab is now operating with a skeleton crew as researchers focus all their work on the COVID-19 diagnostic testing. She said college administrators have had to make high-stakes decisions about shutting down laboratory work quickly with little precedent to guide their decisions.

"For those of us who work in tissue culture, we can freeze our materials and come back to them in two months, but you can’t freeze that mouse stock that you spent the last two years making," she said. "There’s only one way to propagate that resource, and that’s to take care of those animals and let them reproduce. Universities are having to make split-second decisions with very little history of experience in making such decisions. It's a slippery slope, too. If one lab gets to stay open or have a few people go in because they have animal research, what about the fruit fly lab? Does that count? You could go on and on just brainstorming the very complicated decisions that administrators have to make right now."

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‘It would take something major’ to keep the doors open at Notre Dame de Namur

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 00:00

Notre Dame de Namur University's interim president said a decision announced last Monday not to admit new students is buying time for university leaders to find a way to keep the university open.

Faculty members are less hopeful. One faculty leader described the decision as a temporary stay of execution.

The unsettled situation demonstrates why it's so difficult to close a college or university. Faculty and staff members resist the idea of giving up on their employer's future -- and their own jobs -- too early. Leaders who want to do right by current students and staff are left with few paths forward and are very often criticized for giving up on the colleges they lead.

Similar situations have unfolded in the past. Hampshire College's leaders tried last year to suspend admissions and seek a merger partner, only for alumni to revolt and force the institution to reverse course. Before that, Sweet Briar College leaders attempted to close the college and wind down operations because of poor enrollment and financial trends but were stopped by outraged alumnae.

Both situations were marked by acrimony between college leaders and those fighting to maintain the college's independence. Notre Dame de Namur appears to be different -- at least so far. Faculty have called for many of the university's leaders to resign but said in a letter to interim president Dan Carey, "Dan, you can stay."

Under plans announced last week, current students on track to graduate by spring 2021 will do so, and other students are receiving assistance to transfer to another college. Athletics will be suspended at the end of the current semester. The university will refund deposits for already-admitted students.

“It would be unethical for the university to accept more students,” Carey said, because the university’s financial situation is grim, and staying open is becoming increasingly difficult.

But Notre Dame de Namur did not announce that it’s closing, and Carey refused to speculate whether and when it may shut its doors. Instead, the university is holding out for a solution and stretching what little resources it does have to graduate as many students as possible in the next year and a half.

“Our goal from the very beginning is to do right by everybody,” Carey said. “Our goal is to serve the students in every way that we can and to get them to graduation, instead of just to give up and say, ‘We’re closing.’”

The small, private, four-year university is not alone. Many similar institutions have been facing declining enrollment and upping their tuition discount rates, leaving little cushion between operating expenses and revenue. The new coronavirus has heightened that financial pressure: room and board refunds will create a temporary budget hole in many cases, students will likely require more financial assistance, and universities with small endowments are watching them shrink in the bear market. Together, the pressures could force many institutions to close in coming years.

Notre Dame de Namur's troubles came before the coronavirus outbreak. Nonetheless, it is worth watching to see how the university's leaders and faculty handle financial crises at a time when the global pandemic is quickly shifting the outlook for higher education.

According to Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute, Notre Dame de Namur’s approach in winding down its operations is unique.

“I don’t think I’ve seen something quite like this before, to be totally candid,” Horn said. “My sense is that normally schools, Boards of Trustees come together, make some clear plans, figure out teach-out options and make a clear announcement.”

But then this Friday, after Horn was interviewed, MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., followed that format. The college announced that it will close at the end of the spring semester, citing declining enrollment, rising costs and an insufficient endowment.

Carey hopes there’s still time for an intervention. The university is not currently negotiating with any other colleges about a potential merger. That doesn't mean it hasn't explored potential merger options, Carey said. He remains open to the idea.

“We’re buying time to see whether there could be a viable new structure,” Carey said. “What are the odds [of staying open]? I don’t even want to go there. It would take something major.”

In response to a question about rumored merger negotiations between Notre Dame de Namur and the University of San Francisco, USF issued the following statement.

"As two private, not for profit Catholic institutions, among the oldest in California, USF and NDNU had conversations with a goal of serving our students while preserving the legacy of Catholic higher education in the State of California," it said. "After wide-ranging discussions, it became apparent that the current environment did not present a context for a successful relationship. "

Many faculty members at Notre Dame de Namur will not be employed by the spring of 2021. Layoffs are certain, Carey said. How many faculty members will be let go and when such moves will be announced is still undecided.

Faculty are pessimistic.

Vince Fitzgerald, chair of the English department and president of the university's Faculty General Assembly, doesn’t buy in to the university’s optimism.

“The school keeps insisting that we’re staying open, but the pathway we’re on now is the pathway to closure,” Fitzgerald said. “It feels like a temporary stay of execution.”

He estimates that based on the number of returning students, only one-fourth to one-third of the faculty will be retained. The university would not comment on this estimate's accuracy.

Notre Dame de Namur is in negotiations with faculty and staff unions. Carey received a letter from the faculty union SEIU Local 1021 on Wednesday evening. It asks for numerous financial and employment documents and calls for the entire board, the university's chief financial officer and its lawyer to resign.

“We would prefer to do this the easy way, but if NDNU prefers the hard way we can do that too,” wrote Nato Green, campaign coordinator for the faculty union. “These others have to go. Dan, you can stay.”

According to Fitzgerald, the faculty has lost confidence in the board.

“The faculty strongly believes that we need a new board. If the board is not willing to do everything they can to do the heavy lifting to save this institution, then they need to step aside and let other people do it,” he said.

Fitzgerald is hoping to rally for outside help and to forge community partnerships that could keep the institution afloat. The university’s announcement last week could jeopardize those relationships, he said.

“They’ve chosen the pathway where we’ll have no students in May, and that makes it exponentially more difficult to find people who would want to donate to the university,” he said.

Carey is asking for the faculty’s cooperation.

“The bottom line is this,” he said. “If there’s not cooperation, then we might not be able to meet our goal of serving our students.”

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New index rates countries by degree of freedom for scholars

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 00:00

Comparative data on academic freedom has been hard to come by, but a new index released Thursday assigns ratings to countries based on how free scholars are to teach and research.

The index relies on expert assessments of five measures related to freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity (defined as the degree to which campuses are free from politically motivated surveillance or security-related infringements), and freedom of academic, cultural and political expression.

“We had two different objectives. One was an academic objective and another one more policy/advocacy related,” said Katrin Kinzelbach, a professor of political science at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, in Germany, and one of the developers of the Academic Freedom Index. The index, which goes by the abbreviation AFi, is a collaborative effort by FAU; the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin-based think tank; the Scholars at Risk Network, a New York-based organization that monitors academic freedom conditions and assists threatened scholars; and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, which is based at the University of Gothenberg, in Sweden.

From an academic point of view, Kinzelbach said the research team wanted to move beyond incident-tracking data -- which typically focuses on discrete events that constitute academic freedom violations -- to understand conditions for academic freedom more broadly, “not just violations but to understand improvements.”

The second objective is more advocacy-related. A paper describing the index and findings outlines how the data can be used by universities, governments, individual students and researchers, and others -- including major university rankers, which do not currently factor academic freedom into their rankings. Universities in China in particular have climbed up rankings tables quickly even as many scholars have raised concerns about deteriorating academic freedom conditions.

“Academic freedom must be resurrected as a key criterion for academic reputation and quality,” the paper states. “AFi country scores can be used to improve established university rankings. At present, leading rankings narrowly define academic excellence and reputation as a function of outputs. As a result, institutions in repressive environments have climbed the reputation ladder and now occupy top ranks. They thereby mislead key stakeholders and make it possible for repressive state and higher education authorities to restrict academic freedom without incurring a reputational loss.”

The developers of the index argue that universities' rankings could be adjusted upward or downward based on the academic freedom conditions in the countries in which they're located.

“The argument which has been made previously -- that we do not have comparative data on academic freedom and therefore cannot factor it into such rankings -- no longer holds, because we have presented data,” Kinzelbach said.

Ben Sowter, the senior vice president for QS, a major global university ranker, said QS is interested in exploring these kinds of metrics.

“We have always tried to avoid building environmental constants into institutional rankings -- for example, tuition fees or salary after graduation are problematic, because they reflect relative exchange rates from one year to the next as much as the actual achievements and capabilities of the institution,” Sowter said. “However, we are exploring ways to provide additional data alongside the rankings as tools by which a user can filter, customize and contextualize our results, and we would be interested in exploring metrics like this through that kind of mechanism as long as they are robustly compiled themselves.”

Phil Baty, the editor for Times Higher Education World Universities Ranking, another major ranker, said "THE’s approach to rankings is to proactively acknowledge that there are many different types of excellence in global higher education, from teaching and research, of course, but also including social mobility, knowledge transfer, societal impact and many other aspects. So THE has developed a wide range of metrics for a wide range of institutional missions and priorities, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all model."

He mentioned a new ranking THE is doing to measure universities' impact on societies through the framework of the United Nations' sustainable development goals.

"When we look at universities in in relation to the SDGs, we look at their research and teaching, of course, but we also look at their stewardship of their own affairs: how they treat their staff and students, for example, how they manage their own consumption, and … whether they have strong governance systems, including clear policies on academic freedom," Baty said.

A total of 1,810 scholars contributed data for the Academic Freedom Index. The index does not report data for 35 countries -- including the United States and Australia -- for which it did not have enough expert coders. Kinzelbach said she hopes that will be fixed for the next round of data.

“Apparently it is often difficult in high-income countries to excite academics to contribute to a larger research project of this kind where they don’t have a publication related to it," she said.

Countries are divided into one of five brackets based on their overall academic freedom score (see image above). Countries falling in the worst category include China and the United Arab Emirates, two countries with which many American universities have substantial partnerships. Other countries falling into the bottom bracket as far as academic freedom is concerned are Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cuba, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

Coders provided ratings of countries going back to 1900 or when the first university was established in a given country, whichever was more recent. The report highlights five countries where AFi scores have increased by 10 percent over the last five years, suggesting improvements: Armenia, Ethiopia, Gambia, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.

The report also identifies countries for which there was a 10 percent drop in AFi score over the last five years, suggesting a worsening of conditions: Benin, Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Libya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Turkey, Ukraine and Yemen.

Brazil and India had the steepest declines over the last five years. The developers of the index say they welcome healthy debate on these findings.

"While there is evidence of a deteriorating condition for academics in both countries, the extent of the AFi score’s decline seems somewhat disproportional in comparison to earlier periods in the countries’ history, as well as in comparison to other countries over the same period," they write in the report.

"In this context, it is important to reiterate that AFi coders are typically academics who work in the country that they assess. Their concerns and fears are reflected in the data. We believe that this intrinsic feature of expert-coded data must be openly discussed. Recent deteriorating trends should be read as important warning signs that depict the current climate among academics in the country. However, we also encourage substantiated, scholarly debate on the data, as well as additional expert assessments in future rounds of data collection that allow for a retrospect evaluation of the situation."

GlobalEditorial Tags: Academic freedomInternational higher educationImage Source: Global Public Policy InstituteImage Caption: Global Levels of Academic Freedom 2019: Status Groups According to Academic Freedom Index (scale 0-1). Countries with "A" rankings have the highest score, and those with E rankings have the lowest. Countries in gray are not rated due to insufficient data.Is this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box: Live Updates: liveupdates0

College presidents fear financial -- and human -- toll of coronavirus on their campuses

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 00:00

Student and employee mental health is campus leaders' top short-term concern, while financial viability and enrollment are their biggest long-term worries, survey finds.

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The rise of the remote Ph.D. defense

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 00:00

“Can you move the computer closer?” asks a disembodied voice. “Because we see a lot of roof.”

“Ah, I think it looks much better,” another invisible person says a few minutes later, following adjustments to the setup for Kaitlin Rasmussen’s virtual doctoral thesis defense.

Rasmussen, looking into her computer screen, half smiles and says, “I’m so excited for this to be over.” She cheers up when sees and hears that many of her friends -- including one from Australia, where it’s 1 a.m. -- are tuned in to her defense via Zoom.

Looking at the rising conference participant count on the bottom of her screen, however, Rasmussen grows nervous again. There are dozens of people here -- some 75 at one point. That’s many more than would have attended her defense in person if it were taking place as planned in her department at the University of Notre Dame.

Instead, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rasmussen is presenting from a basement near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was studying temporarily -- and where she’s stuck, in her MIT supervisor’s home, for now. A white sheet is her projector screen, and a bamboo stick from the MIT supervisor’s garden is her pointer. A hot water heater frames the shot on the right.

Yet another voice booms into the Zoom call now, breaking the tension. “Are biotechnologists allowed? I promise not to ask about the p-values.”

Making the Best of It

Rasmussen is an astronomer, not a biotechnologist. But everyone is invited to her defense. She put out a call on Twitter the day prior to make the best of a disappointing situation.

“The defense is the accumulation of all of your work for the last five or six years, so it’s kind of weird,” she said. “I’ve always had plans for this. Some people have dream weddings in mind, but I’ve always had this. I imagined I’d buy some really fancy, expensive clothes and have a really good vibe, and give this awesome presentation in front of my friends and family.”

In reality, her outfit is jeans and the one dressy shirt she brought with her to Boston, way before COVID-19. And the “vibe” is muted: coronavirus casual. Still, almost everyone who matters has Zoomed in: Rasmussen’s thesis committee, minus one member, who is ill (no word on what’s wrong), family members and friends -- plus some supportive randos (this reporter included).

Initial awkwardness aside, Rasmussen’s 30-minute talk on her research on first-generation, metal-poor stars goes smoothly and quickly. There is a short question-and-answer period with all viewers before her thesis committee kicks everyone else off the call, as convention dictates.

A short while later, after answering committee members’ questions, Rasmussen emerges from the call a doctor of astrophysics. She celebrates by ordering herself a cheese pizza. Dessert is the apple crisp her MIT supervisor made for the occasion.

Ashton Merck, a historian at Duke University, also earned her doctorate this week following a Zoom defense. She celebrated with her partner in their off-campus home by finishing off the bottle of prosecco in their fridge. As soon as she’s able, she wants to invite her dissertation committee members to her home and cook everyone an air-chilled chicken dinner. But as her research was on food safety, she said she’ll be offering a vegetarian option, as well -- just in case she sent anyone down that path.

This was not the way Merck imagined her defense would go, either. But she said it would make for an interesting story eventually -- just like the new lines in her curriculum vitae that say "canceled due to COVID-19" or "delivered remotely due to COVID-19."

“It feels like that will become a marker of where people were in their career when this happened,” she said.

There were some clear disadvantages to the scenario: Merck said it was harder to gauge her committee's reaction to things, for example. And even with a Zoom "happy hour" among friends afterward, she said, “It just didn't quite feel real. Still doesn’t.”

That said, Merck, like Rasmussen, gained observers by going virtual. History defenses are typically private affairs, Merck explained, whereas 15 viewers saw her Zoom presentation. (Her committee members went into a Zoom breakout room alone to deliberate.)

Many more have since seen the informal paper Merck wrote for and on her experience. The document, which she shared with her committee members in advance, includes notes on where to position your screen, what to wear (shoes do matter, at least for the candidate!) and hints for the committee and chair (this is how you access Zoom; leave your microphone on mute).

Tri Keah Henry defended her work in criminal justice and criminology virtually this week, as well, via Zoom with colleagues at Sam Houston State University.

“My technical advice would be to become really familiar with the platform that you’re using,” she said, noting that she’d never used Zoom before practicing for the talk.

In the end, Henry said defending virtually was actually a "little less stressful than an in-person defense, simply because I had more control over the presentation." She was also less distracted by her surroundings and her audience and therefore more focused on what she was saying.

The New Normal?

Virtual defenses have quickly become the norm, thanks to the social distancing and stay-at-home orders related to the coronavirus. But they are not new. Graduate students who cannot be on campus, or whose committee members can't be there, have been Zooming and otherwise virtually defending research for years. Merck notes, for example, that her own how-to guide was inspired by thoughts from Alyssa Frederick, who conducted her Ph.D. defense remotely in November, due to a new job.

Ethan White, an associate professor of interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida, said his research group has had a remote component for most Ph.D. defenses for years so that family, friends and former lab mates may participate. Of entirely virtual defenses, White said he worried that a major life accomplishment could feel “anticlimactic.” Still, there are ways for committee members and other viewers to combat this, as he suggested in a recent series of tweets on the subject: leave your video feed on, consider exaggerating your engagement with thumbs-ups and nods, and make a big deal of the student passing -- even if you’re stressed about other things.

The question, White said, is, "How do we try to match the energy and feeling of accomplishment that comes from presenting to a live audience?"

He argued that there are also benefits to remote defenses, including gaining experience presenting research in this way.

"This is becoming more common," he said, "and it's definitely a skill to learn how to present effectively and enthusiastically without an audience in the room."

As for whether virtual defenses might catch on, post-pandemic, White said he hoped so -- at least as an option. Remote presentations provide more flexibility for students who are away from campus and those who have started other positions.

“The more flexibility we provide students and faculty to work and interact remotely, the better," he said. (White recently co-wrote a paper on supporting remote postdoctoral work.)

Vinicius Placco, research assistant professor of astrophysics at Notre Dame and one of Rasmussen’s supervisors there, said he thought “everything went really well with regards to technology” during her defense. But he noted helpful tweaks that could be made going forward, such as having students screen-share their slides instead of projecting them, for better clarity, or using Zoom’s webinar function to prevent viewers from accidentally interrupting a presentation.

Placco said he didn’t know if a virtual defense can ever really replace an “in-person” experience. But he called remote defenses “a very welcome option, especially in difficult times like this, but also when committee members are traveling or if you have external members from other universities.”

Placco’s own defense happened in Brazil, he said, with a U.S.-based committee member joining by Skype. He agreed that another major benefit of remote defenses is that they're inclusive.

“I could tell that Kaitlin felt really supported by family and friends, which made everything even more special and hopefully a bit less stressful to her.”

Edward Balleisen, professor of history and public policy at Duke and Merck’s adviser, said having to go with a virtual defense “was of course a disappointment. We have rituals at milestones for a reason, and they don’t conjure up the same atmosphere nor elicit the same emotional punch when mediated by cyberspace.”

Even so, the intellectual exchanges at Merck’s defense were “excellent,” he said. “I can’t say the quality of the discussion among Ashton and the five members of her committee was significantly affected.”

Could virtual defenses catch on? Balleisen said Duke, like other institutions, had a rule that only one faculty member of a dissertation committee could attend a defense remotely. Members also signed physical dissertation exam cards.

Now, he said, “I would not be surprised at all to see both of these rules fall by the wayside.”

The current crisis will likely “accelerate changes that have been in the works for some time,” Balleisen continued. As more faculty members become accustomed to digital “modes of engagement, I expect there will be fresh thinking about whether and how to deploy them,” in contexts from scholarly presentations to meetings to job searches.

Henry, the criminologist, said, “Defending in person is a very special part of the process, and if I had to choose, I would’ve defended in person. I do, however, think it’s a good option for those who can’t do a face-to-face defense for whatever reason.”

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Experts respond to questions about college fundraising and HR functions during the crisis

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 00:00

Virtually all of higher education is coping with severe disruptions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Several questions about the crisis that readers submitted in response to requests from Inside Higher Ed revolved around teleworking and employment status, or on college fundraising efforts during the crisis.

To seek answers from experts, Inside Higher Ed reached out to Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR); Matthew Lambert, vice president for university advancement at the College of William & Mary; and Linda Durant, vice president of development at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

Their lightly edited responses via email are below. Inside Higher Ed plans to make Q&As like this one a regular feature in coming weeks or months. So please keep your questions coming, as comments on articles or sent to Covid19@insidehighered.com

Q: What goes into making the big shift to remote work happen at colleges and universities?

Brantley: During the last two weeks, human resources leaders have worked with presidents, provosts, vice presidents, deans and other managers to make unprecedented changes to work assignments and work processes. Teleworking, which was the exception just two weeks ago, has now become the norm. These changes and transitions have required policy changes and the creation of new policies to manage workforces more diverse than other employers across the country.

Q: What sort of policy changes?

Brantley: Human resources leaders will need to make more changes during the next weeks as teleworking employees attempt to complete their job duties while caring for children who cannot go to daycare, teaching their children who must now be homeschooled and addressing the other challenges created by this crisis.

Human resources leaders will also have to provide guidance and support for employees who are not able to work from home. How long can the institution continue paying all employees? Are there part-time assignments these employees can complete from home? If employees have to be laid off before the institution can resume regular operations, what policies and practices need to be in place to provide as much support as possible and return these colleagues to work as quickly as possible?

Q: Which institutions are handling this challenge well so far?

Brantley: Here is an example from the president of Indiana University at Bloomington. All institutions will not be able to make this commitment, but I am so pleased to see that IU leaders are making this commitment to their employees. The challenges we face as higher ed and as a nation have created significant stress and uncertainty for everyone. For IU employees, the promise that their pay will continue through at least June 30 removes one significant uncertainty that is still a burden for many Americans.

Q: How is the crisis affecting college and university fundraising campaigns?

Durant: Many institutions have not stopped their campaigns and instead may be changing the funding priorities during this time of crisis. One lesson learned during the last recession is that it was especially important during this time to continue talking and communicating with donors, alumni and all constituents. These conversations often lead to the donor deciding to make their gift or pledge despite the current situation or because of the current situation.

A good fundraiser does not make assumptions about their donors and what they want to do or are feeling at this time. That is why these conversations are vital to the campaign and the institution. All donors have unique situations, and it is ultimately their decision as to what they want to do now; for many, their loyalty and trust in the institution means they want to give back now and show their support.

Q: How has William & Mary shifted its approach to fundraising?

Lambert: Like most senior leaders (in advancement or elsewhere) in higher education around the country, we’ve had to build a new playbook, since this is quite different from previous crises such as Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession. We are in a unique place, in the final three months of our campaign, so we are close to our finish line but not yet quite there.

Over the past few weeks, as events related to COVID-19 have transpired at such a rapid pace, at William & Mary we have refocused our fundraising efforts on helping students facing emergency situations, including our international students who have no way of returning home to their families. William & Mary is currently fully operational, and we have moved all our classes online.

We are doing all we can to facilitate a healthy and safe virtual teaching and learning environment for our students and faculty. As you can imagine, in order to fully transition to virtual learning, we needed to take swift action. We needed to be agile and innovative. Private support will enable us to continue to be nimble and innovative.

Q: Can a college raise funds to help with this crisis?

Durant: Colleges are indeed actively fundraising during these times. Critically important to them are appeals for emergency loans and financial aid funds for students, in order to continue their education, and for some to have a safe place to live and provide for their basic needs. Emory University and the University of Cincinnati are examples of just two that are doing this now.

Also, universities with medical schools and centers are fundraising to provide critical funding to continue their research and/or their services to the community. Institutions continue to do their annual appeals, and the money raised will be for these priorities. A good number of the alumni donors understand the need for the institution to have unrestricted dollars at a time like this to help them keep the mission of the institution alive.

Lambert: While the pandemic has been (and will continue to be) devastating -- from a public health and financial standpoint -- it has brought our community together (at a distance, of course) like never before. We’ve been able to create a micro-campaign, if you will, that will enable us to meet the immediate needs of our most vulnerable students while serving as strategic partner in the effort. We also know that our faculty are completely reinventing their teaching model in real time -- for many, this is their first time teaching in a virtual environment. So we also have enormous opportunities to support the kinds of retraining that will enable our faculty to deliver a high-quality education in a new mode. That is a tremendous opportunity for this short-term emergency, but also for the longer term.

Q: Should new campaigns be postponed or changed?

Durant: These types of decision are not made lightly and are done so after many conversations with the institutions’ leadership, the advancement professionals and the campaign leadership, which typically includes a number of trustees of the institution. There really isn’t one clear-cut answer to this -- it depends on the institution, what their circumstances are now, how far along in the campaign are they, what are the priorities of the campaign.

Lambert: While I would never presume to answer that question for another university, this is probably not a time to be launching an ambitious new campaign. Our campaign director often shares quotes from the late Jerry Panas, who reminded us after the Great Recession that “There is no ‘perfect moment’ to raise money. There is no such thing as a time when all possible factors are in your favor.” Launching a campaign often involves crystallizing and sharing of objectives, goals and vision, and engaging donors in a “join our movement” moment. While that does not need to and should not stop, you do have to reimagine your approach and ensure you are not tone-deaf in your outreach (particularly if launching a campaign includes the traditional pomp and circumstance).

Fundraising should not stop during a time like this but rather can be directed to help those being impacted by the crisis. Now is a time to be in even more regular and thoughtful communication with donors to deepen the relationships and assure them that the institution is committed to leading and serving during this difficult time. I am personally calling donors every single day, and we are encouraging our team to do the same -- to check on their health and well-being, to ask how they are coping with the emergency in their business or organization, and to remind them that William & Mary is their 80-year home and we stand ready to help however we can. Two-thirds of our alumni donor base consists of consecutive-year donors, so we feel optimistic and confident that we have developed a base that can weather a crisis such as this -- we will be there for them, as they are for alma mater.

Q: How does the appeal to potential donors change?

Lambert: We must do all that we can to be sensitive to the evolving situation and adapt a different set of messaging and priorities that align with current circumstances. As you might imagine, among my leadership team we have had healthy debate about how and when and in what ways we can resume “normal” fundraising activities, and right now there is no easy or clear answer.

Instead, we are taking the approach of remaining committed to our core philosophy -- in essence, we are seeking to establish 80-year relationships with our alumni and donors that last throughout their lifetimes and will span numerous emergencies, tragedies, celebrations, campaigns, highs and lows. If we do our jobs thoughtfully and well, those relationships will endure any single episode along the way, and they will see and understand the ongoing priorities of the university, the ways they can help and have an impact, and we will know that when they can help, they will.

With that in mind, while we are only a few months from successfully concluding our $1 billion For the Bold campaign, we decided we had to change course a bit. So, we made some tough decisions -- the right decisions -- because our students, faculty, staff and William & Mary as a whole are relying on private support during this crisis. We pivoted and reprioritized. We even moved our biggest day of giving (One Tribe One Day) back several months from April to June. And we are creating new and interesting virtual events for our alumni to engage with one another and the university. We’ve asked ourselves, “How do we remain relevant to our alumni and donors? How do we help them as they work through these challenges in their personal and professional lives? How do we continue to build those 80-year relationships?”

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Stimulus includes tax break for employer-paid student loan benefits, drawing praise and criticism

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 00:00

The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill Congress is set to pass includes a one-time tax break this year for annual employer contributions of up to $5,250 toward their employees’ student loan debt. The provision is drawing both praise and criticism.

A growing number of mostly large companies have begun offering student loan payments as a benefit for both current employees and new hires.

A survey conducted last year by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 4 percent of 772 responding organizations offer such a plan, with 2 percent in the process of creating one. Another 23 percent of employers, however, said they were considering such a benefit.

For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers last year announced it had paid $25 million toward the student loan debt of employees. The auditing and professional services company offers $1,200 in loan repayment per year for up to six years for its associates and senior associates.

A bill introduced last year by Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, sought to make employer-paid student loan benefits tax-free. Companies that help manage such plans said the space would explode if the bill passed, with some saying all major employers would have to offer the benefit.

The 619-page draft stimulus bill would do just that and appears to mirror the proposal from Warner.

Section 2206 of the bill would exclude from taxation any payment made this year "by an employer, whether paid to the employee or to a lender, of principal or interest on any qualified education loan incurred by the employee for education of the employee." It appears to only be in effect for 2020, although pulling back a tax break is rarely an easy political move.

The benefit likely would be lucrative for both student loan borrowers and employers, wrote Adam Looney, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Tax Policy Center from the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.

“Under the terms of the bill, employers could establish educational assistance programs, which currently allow employers to provide tuition assistance for courses taken by an employee, to provide up to $5,250 per year, per worker in tax-free assistance for employees repaying student loans,” he wrote. “Instead of being treated as wages, those payments would be excluded from income and payroll taxes (both the employee and employer portion).”

Among those applauding the provision was Scott Thompson, CEO of Tuition.io, which works with companies on employer-paid student loan benefits.

“Providing a tax subsidy for employer student loan repayment doesn’t just benefit individual workers, it will help reduce a major drag on the overall economy as we recover from the COVID-19 shock,” he said in a statement. “Even if only temporary, this groundbreaking legislation will enable companies large and small to help America's working people make it through this historical crisis.”

Looney, however, said the perk will help student loan borrowers who need it least.

Only borrowers with jobs will be able to receive it, obviously. And he said most people don’t work for an employer with benefits that are generous enough to offer student loan payments, noting that only four in 10 people with debt work for an employer that is even willing to establish a matching 401(k) plan.

In addition, employers that offer broad benefits tend to have higher-income workforces. And Looney said the tax break will be more valuable for workers in higher tax brackets.

“Beyond simply being regressive, the bill targets loan relief to those who need it least,” he wrote. “Low-income, unemployed borrowers who can’t make payments and default at high rates get no relief. But borrowers who are already making payments -- at or above the $5,250 annual level -- get the full benefit.”

The proposed tax break is bad policy on several levels, said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And he said the provision obviously is not aimed at addressing the financial distress people are experiencing due to the coronavirus.

“It rewards employers for paying employees who have student loans more in total compensation than their employees who do not,” Delisle said in an email. “As a result, it also encourages people to take on student debt even when they don’t need to -- otherwise they will miss out on being able to pay for the education in pre-tax dollars, or through an employer-provided benefit.”

Student debt will rise as a result of the benefit, he predicted.

"Yet again, the implicit message from Congress is, unfortunately, that in the eyes of the loan program, it is better to have an expensive graduate degree and be employed than to have a low-cost degree and struggle to repay," said Delisle. "The former is showered with loan forgiveness and now tax breaks; the latter is stuck paying back every penny he borrowed."

A different take came from Adrienne L. Way, CEO and owner of Edcor Data Services LLC, one of the more established players in the employer benefits field. She said a nontaxable benefit for student loan assistance benefits payments would be a win for employers and employees.

She said the tax benefit would help employers of all sizes, in part because it would be easy to implement under the stimulus bill’s provision and would be effective in recruiting and retaining employees.

“This benefit allows smaller employers to compete for the top talent that oftentimes goes to larger organizations with more lucrative benefits,” Way said in a statement.

Student loan repayment programs are a new, rarely offered form of benefit. Way said many employers had been waiting to see what would happen in Congress. The stimulus bill was what companies were waiting for, she said.

“This is not just about paying off student loans; assistance from the employer helps the employee free up income to put into a 401(k) or save money for large purchases such as a new home,” she said. “Over all, this benefit helps anyone and everyone who is employed pay down their student debt, which is ultimately good for the economy. It also becomes an excellent incentive for those unemployed to search out employers that offer this benefit.”

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