Sara Jayne Steen, the president of Plymouth State University, sent an e-mail to students telling them they could skip classes today if they wanted to stay off campus to avoid a pro-gun protest, the Associated Press reported. Opponents of the university's gun ban have vowed to hold a protest today, and to attend the protest with loaded guns. The university plans to enforce its ban.
Higher Education Quick Takes
The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday released the latest in a recent series of reports requested as part of Sen. Tom Harkin's continuing investigation into for-profit higher education, with this one focused on student outcomes. The new GAO report, which leaned heavily on a research study examined in an Inside Higher Ed article Wednesday, finds that the colleges lag other institutions in student unemployment, borrowing rates, debt loads, loan default rates and licensing exam pass rates, but performed better on certificate program completion rates and had similar outcomes in associate degree graduation rates and student earnings.
The GAO report acknowledged that it is difficult to compare the performance of for-profits with public and private nonprofit institutions, because the industry enrolls a "higher proportion of low-income, minority and nontraditional students who face challenges that can affect their educational outcomes," and because none of the available data sets are complete enough to give a fully accurate comparison across sectors. The GAO conducted mostly new research in analyzing licensing exam pass rates, which found that for-profit-college students had worse pass rates than their peers at nonprofit colleges in 9 of 10 exams, such as those for paramedics, lawyers and massage therapists. But the GAO cautioned that few college graduates take the exams and that student characteristics, such as race and income, were generally not available. The GAO was not able to control for those factors, which might have influenced outcomes.
Most department chairs and most faculty members at Columbia University's engineering school have signed letters of no confidence in Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora, The New York Times reported. While top administrators are backing the dean, faculty members say that he has broken deals he made with various departments, particularly on issues of space allocation. Peña-Mora told the Times that the culture at Columbia "takes some getting used to."
Datatel and SunGard Higher Education announced Wednesday that the U.S. Justice Department has cleared a proposed combination of the two companies. Both companies are major players in providing back-office software and a range of other services to colleges and universities. The planned merger was announced in August, but needed government approval to proceed. The companies anticipate a formal combination early in 2012.
Rob Francis, the head baseball coach at St. Petersburg College, was arrested Tuesday after authorities said he drove to a meeting in Orlando he set up with someone who identified in a chat room as a 14-year-old girl, The Orlando Sentinel reported. In fact, there was no 14-year-old but a police officer. Francis was charged with two felony counts of obscene communication and transmission of harmful material to a minor via an electronic device. The college has placed Francis on leave and barred him from campus.
As expected, the University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear an appeal of lower court rulings upholding the institution's right to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Those challenging the Texas policies argue that because the university has attracted diverse students with a race-neutral approach (admitting those in the top 10 percent of their high school classes), Texas should not be permitted to consider race. The university argues that the lower courts got it right in that some level of success in one diversity strategy does not preclude a university from adopting other strategies to enhance diversity. The Supreme Court is likely to announce early next year whether it will hear the case, which would be its first consideration of affirmative action in higher education since 2003.
Some new evidence in the continuing debate over the impact of large classes on teaching and learning: The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario has just released a report that notes a lack of consensus on whether class size alone is a key factor in learning. However, the report concludes that "if size matters ... teaching methods and course design probably matter more."
Simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to include only information already provided to the IRS would increase the number of upper-income families eligible for aid at the state and federal level, according to a report released Wednesday by the College Board and the Lumina Foundation for Education. The study, which looked at FAFSA data from five states, found that the expected family contribution for students at higher income levels -- greater than $75,000 per year -- would decline, but that simplification would have only a modest effect on eligibility for Pell Grants and state need-based aid.
"These modifications would lead to relatively small changes in eligibility for the state grant programs studied in this analysis," wrote the authors of the report, "Can Simple be Equitable?" "Further, these types of changes could result in federal and state grant application and eligibility systems that are simpler and more predictable for filers."
Congress should create incentives to make sure publishers and education technology companies take the needs of disabled students into account when designing new products, the U.S. Education Department’s Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education said in a report released on Tuesday. The commission, which was created as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, issued a number of recommendations to Congress in its hefty report, including "establishing a process for creating uniform accessibility guidelines for industry and consumers" and "revisiting the components of existing copyright exception" to make sure digital content can be duplicated in accessible formats. James H. Wendorf, vice chair of the commission, emphasized the latter in a statement: "There is general confusion over the application of the existing [copyright] law and regulations – especially as [the law] applies to students with learning disabilities -- and specific uncertainty as to which organizations are permitted to reproduce instructional materials." The commission reported that, on the whole, publishers had been accommodating of the needs of disabled students, but "some developers of Web applications, social media and productivity software used to support postsecondary instructional practice are less proactive."