Behind the News

Behind the News

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Next month Americans head to the polls for what will be, no matter the outcome, a historic election. When it comes to higher education, the candidates agree more often than not on the “A list” issues: accessibility, affordability, and accountability.

Both candidates see simplifying the aid process as a key to getting more young people into college.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has said he will streamline the financial aid process by eliminating the FAFSA and adding a checkbox on annual tax forms where filers can authorize the use of their information to determine financial aid eligibility.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), too, says many eligible students are deterred from seeking student aid because of the complex process. He would consolidate aid programs to help more students have a better understanding of their eligibility for aid.

Both candidates support an increase in the Pell Grant and, as senators, voted in favor of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act in 2007, which increased the maximum Pell Grant award from $4,050 to $5,400.

The candidates do differ on federal financial aid programs, however, which help nearly 9 million students pay for their education. While Obama supports the Federal Direct Loan Program as a less costly option for students and taxpayers, McCain supports an expansion of the Federal Family Education Loan Program.

Perhaps Obama’s most ambitious proposal is the American Opportunity Tax Credit. This universal and fully refundable credit would ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most Americans and would cover two-thirds the cost of tuition at a public university and make community college tuition-free for most students. The tax credit would use data from the previous year so that it would be available to families at enrollment time.

Obama also wants to expand AmeriCorps, the service program created by President Clinton but financially decimated during the Bush administration. Under Obama’s plan, AmeriCorps would increase support for service learning and create scholarships for students who promise to become teachers.

Finally, Obama has been talking about requiring professional accreditation of all college teaching programs, most likely through nongovernmental groups such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. This is in line with current movements toward accreditation supported by many higher ed institutions.

McCain has outlined broad education reforms that he would pursue, yet on some issues the Republican candidate appears to be at odds with his official party platform. For example, he has voiced support for providing education benefits to some illegal immigrants, although Republicans oppose the idea and have made it a plank in their platform.

On other issues, McCain offers little in the way of specifics. For example, earmarks, long a part of McCain’s reform crusade, also get mention in his education policy. “Billions of dollars are spent on pork barrel projects every year; significant amounts come from research budgets,” his website notes. “Eliminating earmarks would immediately and significantly improve the federal government’s support for university research.” How this would happen isn’t mentioned. Nor are there details about how he would “demand the highest standard of integrity for participating private lenders” in his proposal to expand the lender-of-last resort capability of the federal student loan system.

Read the candidates’ full positions online at www.johnmccain.com and www.barackobama.com. ?Tim Goral

Of the many surveys that track green campus efforts, the National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Environment Report Card is the largest. More than one-quarter of all U.S. higher ed institutions, 1,068 of them, participated in the 2008 survey. Although there are some positive trends involving energy conservation, curriculum continues to lag behind leadership and operations when it comes to a focus on sustainability.

Sustainability-related education offerings and recruitment programs, as well as faculty research, declined between 2001, when NWF’s original survey was conducted, and 2008. Just over half of the IHEs surveyed now offer an undergraduate major or minor in environmental and sustainability studies, down from two-thirds in 2001. The biggest obstacle to expanding this programming? Money. (It was “other priorities” in 2001.)

Is adding sustainability-focused courses the solution? Not quite, says NWF Campus Ecology Director Julian Keniry. “Personally, I think it would be important for sustainability to be integrated across the campus, rather than [in] an isolated class.” She adds that faculty development could encourage more related class discussions. One institution making great strides in sustainability curriculum is Georgia Tech, which aims to ensure graduates are literate on sustainability issues. More than 100 courses across all six of its colleges have a sustainability emphasis.

In general, IHEs are also lagging behind on reducing the impact of travel to campus. Suggestions in the report, available at www.nwf.org (click on Campus Ecology within the Global Warming tab), include special carpool parking, free transit passes, and easy access to bikes. But with leadership being key for reaching sustainability goals, Keniry praises the college presidents who have signed the Presidents Climate Commitment. ?Ann McClure

Sister Diana Stano, president of Ursuline College (Ohio), became a talked-about higher ed leader when she spent the spring 2006 semester living with students in a new residence hall. University Business shared her thoughts on the experience online and in a July 2006 issue feature, “The President Next Door.” This year, Stano made another connection with her campus community by talking about her battle with breast cancer and about early detection and treatment?as well as by joining students in a walk for the cause last month.

Diagnosed in July 2007, Stano underwent a mastectomy that August and then chemotherapy from October to January. She initially only informed her leadership team and board of trustees of her condition, continuing to work three days a week. “I’d come into the office and walk around the halls, so that way people were used to seeing me and it wasn’t like I wasn’t here,” says Stano, president of Ursuline since 1996.

Once she learned that her prognosis was good, Stano decided to share her story. Since Ursuline is a women’s college, she explains, “it’s very important that we make sure our students understand that regular checkups are very important, plus their own self-breast exam and getting regular mammograms.” Her experience has hit home: over the last two years, eight women in Ursuline’s community have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Stano credits her faith, good friends, and a sense of humor?by cracking jokes and watching TV comedy shows?with getting through treatment. She took up art therapy, tried alternative medicines, and educated herself about her condition.

By talking about her experience, she says, “I think it does heighten awareness, and that’s one of the things we do as an educational institution.” ?Michele Herrmann

Overall, students and their families view college as a valuable investment, but their thinking and plans for footing the bill can differ greatly, according to the new Sallie Mae and Gallup study report, “How America Pays for College.” Sallie Mae spokesperson Patricia Nash Christel says it’s a study that the company has wanted to do for a long time. “There’s a lot of good information available about the various aspects of financial aid and tuition levels, but what we felt was missing was how families pay for college.” The study involved 1,400 undergraduate students and their parents.

Not surprisingly, how families pay can vary on the basis of income. Higher-income families surveyed paid much more from savings and income, and generally paid substantially more for college. Those with lower incomes received the most “gift aid,” and the middle class families borrowed the most, both in real dollars and as a percentage of their total college costs. On average, parents footed the largest portion of the bill. Slightly less than half (47 percent) of all families borrowed money to pay for school; federal student loans were the top source for students and parents.

The survey also explored whether cost was a factor in narrowing down schools during a college search. While 58 percent of families reported ruling out schools because of cost at some point during the application process, that leaves a large percentage of families that did not limit their search based on cost?even after reviewing financial aid packages. As for the connections between post-graduation income and borrowing decisions, 70 percent of families said that factor was either not considered or did not make a difference. A significant number of families continue not to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Nearly nine out of 10 families with the lowest annual income (below $35,000) did so, but only 76 percent of families with annual incomes between $35,000 and $50,000 filled it out.

The report is available at www.SallieMae.com/howAmericapays. The site also includes a new online tool to help families estimate the total cost of a college degree, build a personalized financial plan, and estimate the salary a graduate would need to handle paying back student loans. ?M.H.

By Ann Patchett

HarperCollins, www.harpercollins.com, 2008; 97 pp.; $14.95

This book serves as an uplifting reminder to anyone who doubts the lifelong impact of a college and its people on a student. Based on novelist Ann Patchett’s commencement address at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College (N.Y.), it offers inspiration for anyone at a crossroads who’s struggling with the question, What now?

She recalls feeling college pressures and doubts as a teen, and, as a freshman, the worries about selecting a “wrong” class. One snapshot describes Patchett, wrought with loneliness, buying the ingredients (and all of the supplies, too) to bake cookies for her new advisor. After all her work, she discovers a broken dorm oven. She then spots a “fine-looking house” across the street and has an idea. Marching over with trays of unbaked cookies, she stumbles into a friendship with the house’s resident, who also happens to be the new college president.

In a postscript, Patchett describes a grueling critique of her speech draft from a former professor and how she reluctantly but dutifully rewrote it. Then she speaks of graduation day and being reunited with former president Alice Ilchman, recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The true gift of being asked to deliver the commencement address, Patchett concludes, was “the chance to say good-bye to my friend.” ?Melissa Ezarik

HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH runs from September 15 through October 15, coinciding with independence for five Latin American countries. Although national statistics show Hispanic Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the population, they frequently lag behind other ethnicities in educational achievement. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 6 percent of bachelor’s degrees conferred during 2002-2003 went to Hispanic students, compared to 8 percent to African American and 70 percent to white students. It’s no surprise that many colleges are reassessing their outreach efforts.

The University of Kansas (KU), for one, has formed the Latino Vision Council, composed of members of campus and the community, to help shape recruitment efforts. The number of Hispanic high school graduates in Kansas is expected to double to more than 4,000 by 2021, while total fall 2007 enrollment at KU is 986.

Danny Anderson, vice provost for Academic Affairs, says that KU leaders should realize “they are not recruiting a student. They are recruiting a family.” Besides traditional recruiting efforts for high school students and summer camps for junior high students, Baby Jay, the campus mascot, has been dispatched to elementary schools for photo opportunities and an early start on building familiarity with the institution.

But the recruiting effort doesn’t stop at students. The institution has a new Latino studies minor, and “as we add faculty with strength in this area, we hope to expand to a major,” Anderson says. Those faculty could then help recruit for other departments.

There are also plans to revisit recruiting literature, determine which pieces should be bilingual, and consider using language that might be more understandable for families without a lot of experience with higher ed.

In a similar effort, Oregon State University has offered a Spanish-language track during orientation since 2005 to help increase parent involvement. ?A.M.

After two years of study, Rethinking Student Aid, an independent team convened by the College Board, released its report (http://tinyurl.com/4upbay) on how to make the federal aid system easier to navigate and more efficient in distributing funds. “What we needed was to step back from the day-to-day of federal student aid and really think about the purpose,” says Michael McPherson, RSA co-chair and president of the Spencer Foundation. He adds that it’s important to address both the money available and the delivery system.

Plan highlights include eliminating the FASFA; basing Pell Grant eligibility on the federal poverty level; improving the loan process by eliminating the distinction between subsidized and unsubsidized loans and revising repayment plans to be more inline with post graduation pay; and creating federally funded savings accounts for children of low-income families to be used only to pay for higher education. The accounts would help address the gap between low-income families, who don’t have discretionary funds for college savings, and affluent families who can afford 529 plans.

“These are bold ideas,” says Donald Saleh, vice president of enrollment at Syracuse University (N.Y.). “We will have to be patient in bringing higher education along. ...We’re comfortable with existing programs, but most people will probably admit they don’t meet current needs.” ?A.M.

A January 1 deadline is looming for campus human resources offices?and if the deadline is missed the situation could turn into an employee retention and recruitment nightmare. The first new 403(b) regulations in 40 years will increase employers’ role as sponsors of these tax-deferred retirement plans, with respect to investments, transfers, documentation, plan administration, and participant disclosures, according to Lincoln Financial Group.

Lincoln and other 403(b) providers are assisting higher ed institutions with resources such as regulation summaries, compliance checklists, and webcasts as they review and revise plan documents to comply with the new regulations. Although many IHEs are on the case and obtaining an extension is a possibility, “I think there are some that are going to be caught very unaware and unprepared,” says Andy Brantley, CEO of CUPA-HR and a former higher ed HR director. “The magnitude of some of the plan changes might not be as clear to some institutions.”

“Failure to comply could mean that the institution could be disqualified from offering tax-deferred retirement plans,” Brantley warns. That’s news no employer would want to break. If individual accounts lose their tax-advantaged status, employees could be hit hard come April 15. “Institutions need to carefully review the new 403(b) regulations, and get the help of legal counsel and financial service providers, so that they can move to January 1 with no issues,” he adds.

CUPA-HR members can access resources from providers such as TIAA-CREF, AIG Retirement, and ING through the online Knowledge Center, www.cupahr.org/knowledgecenter. Lincoln Financial’s resources can be found under the Lincoln 403(b)e SURE Advantage link at www.lincolnfinancial.com. ?M.E.

IT operations are often cited as the biggest institutional “energy hogs.” With rising costs, most IT directors would not be left in the dark about energy-efficient practices, right? A new report by CDW-G shows that purchasing policies in this area are needed.

The 2008 Energy Efficient Information Technology Report (E2IT) explains that higher ed institutions “are more likely than any other group to support environmental initiatives,” sums up Mark Gambill, CDW vice president, “but they are least likely to have formal policies that promote the purchase of energy-efficient IT equipment and management of energy consumption.” Approximately 778 public and private sector professionals who purchase IT equipment were surveyed.

Only 31 percent of higher ed IT purchasers say energy efficiency is very important when purchasing new equipment, and more than half of higher ed IT managers remain unsure how to make use of energy-efficient technology.

Compared to findings on industries such as business and government, the survey found that higher ed institutions are least likely to assign the IT department responsibility for its energy bill?49 percent compared to 59 percent of other groups. That is, fewer than half of institutions surveyed reported that someone in IT receives reports, authorizes payments, or otherwise has responsibility for the amount and cost of energy used in the organization’s IT operations.

There is a bright side, as E2IT sheds light on where IHEs are having success and need help in reducing power consumption. It offers some cost-saving strategies: putting monitors and PCs into low-power states when not in use, for example, can save between $20 and $100 per PC per year.

Findings in a recent ACUTA survey on how its member schools have gone or are going green coincide with E2IT’s. Among those who haven’t made strides in this area yet, one-third cited difficulties in finding energy-efficient equipment and proving future cost savings; 72 percent blamed budget limitations for holding them back.

A copy of E2IT can be found at www.cdwg.com/e2it. ?M.H.


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