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This, from the front page of today’s New York Times, is a really strong piece, and really worth reading. I may find time to say more about it after the Christmas break, but for now I’ll just cut and paste what I said about it on Facebook a moment ago…

One thing stuck out powerfully for me in this story is that making students jump through hoops sucks.

Too often recently, administrators and legislators have justified increased tuition by bumping up financial aid concurrently. But even when those hikes are commensurate — and they often aren’t, and they rarely are in the long term — more tuition plus a new financial aid system amounts to a new hoop. Students of means, students with educated parents, are generally good at navigating hoops. Students at greater risk often aren’t. So poor students fall through the cracks.

Predictably. Inevitably.

Increases in public college tuition are often linked with, and justified by, corresponding increases in financial aid. In this setup, raising tuition is portrayed as a cost-shifting measure — charging more for those who can afford it to keep costs down for those who can’t. But that’s not how it works out in practice, for several reasons.

First, financial aid increases rarely match tuition hikes, and if you think about it for even a moment, it’s easy to see why. Tuition hikes carry high political costs, and financial aid increases bring less political benefits. If the only reason to raise tuition was to improve financial aid, most politicians wouldn’t bother. You raise tuition to raise revenue, and a revenue-neutral tuition increase isn’t likely to be a political winner.

Second, it’s a lot easier to cut financial aid than to raise tuition, which means that a tuition-for-financial-aid deal often exchanges a short-term benefit for a long-term burden.

And finally, as the Chronicle noted a few weeks back, many prospective students are far more aware of tuition prices than the often complex financial aid options available to them. The higher your tuition, the fewer applicants you’ll get, particularly among the most in-need and at-risk student communities.

Three weeks ago for-profit college giant Kaplan announced it was closing thirteen campuses. Yesterday the Apollo Group, owner of Phoenix University, announced even larger cuts.

With Phoenix enrollment falling nearly 14% in the latest quarter, the company plans to close 115 of its 227 locations throughout the country.

Although the “campuses” facing closure are mostly among Phoenix’s smaller locations, the retrenchment reflects a dramatic reversal for Apollo and the industry as a whole. Apollo profits are down more than half from a year ago, and Phoenix enrollment has declined by more than 70,000 students from its peak.

As I noted when reporting on the Kaplan closures, for-profit students represent a bit more than a tenth of the students enrolled in American higher ed institutions, but they account for a quarter of student-loan borrowers and half of student loan defaults. Because the vast majority of for-profit college revenue comes government-backed student loans, these defaults are a significant drain on taxpayer money.

The government has been slow to regulate for-profit colleges as the scope of their malfeasance has become clear, but the regulatory pace has been picking up in recent months. At least as important, students are wising up about for-profits’ defects, and abandoning the schools in droves.

That’s good news, for them and for the rest of us.

Last weekend some forty Wesleyan students entered a closed meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees, looking to give input on a matter of university governance. The students were advocates of need-blind admissions, a policy under which students are accepted for admission without consideration of their ability to pay. (Admissions have traditionally been need-blind at Wesleyan, but at the start of the summer, after many students had left campus, the trustees voted to scrap that policy for the class of 2017.)

This wasn’t a long occupation — it lasted only about fifteen minutes before students left voluntarily. It wasn’t particularly aggressive — video of the incident shows a conspicuously quiet, and respectful, discussion. And it was far from unprecedented — on the video, one trustee is seen declaring that “students barging in [to trustee meetings] is a long and time-honored tradition at Wesleyan.”

But now at least five of the students who participated in the action are being brought up on campus judicial charges. As the campus online newspaper Wesleying notes, the five stand accused of “disruption” and “failure to comply.” According to the campus student handbook, it looks like punishment for these two violations could be anything from a warning to expulsion.

I watched the video, and I gotta say — that’s some seriously non-disruptive disruption, and some seriously compliant non-compliance. Shame on Wesleyan for making it into a judicial issue.

Pell Grant expenditures by the federal government fell by more than six percent last year, according to new figures from the federal government, despite the fact that they were expected to rise by some $4.4 billion.

The $2.2 billion (or $6.6 billion, depending on how you look at it) savings won’t be fully explained until more detailed numbers are released, but there are likely three overlapping explanations.

The first, and likely largest, factor was the government’s elimination of year-round Pell eligibility last year. Congress zapped summer Pell Grants as a cost-saving measure, and that policy change was expected to reduce outlays by some $4 billion.

Another $1.4 billion of the gap came from declining grant awards to for-profit colleges, which saw Pell enrollment fall by more than a hundred thousand students, or about five percent.

As for the rest? Experts interviewed by Inside Higher Ed suggested that it might have come from a shift from full-time to part-time enrollment, possibly spurred by higher costs of attendance.

The elimination of year-round Pell was obviously a setback for higher ed access, and if students are dropping down to part-time for financial reasons that’s troubling too. But the shrinkage of for-profit enrollment is good news for a few reasons.

For-profit colleges charge students more than publics, and they pass those costs on to the government. Because average Pell outlays to students at for-profits are higher than those to students at the public colleges they’d most likely be attending otherwise, for-profit colleges have for years consumed a disproportionate share of Pell Grant spending. A decline in for-profit colleges — which often engage in predatory enrollment tactics, deliver shoddy instruction, and dump students into loan default after graduation — is good for students, good for the economy, and good for the government’s bottom line.

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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