Undermining Pell, Redux

September, 2014

Washington -- The New America Foundation has published a second round of analysis of how tuition and financial aid policies help or (increasingly) hinder low-income student access to higher education. In Undermining Pell Volume II, Steve Burd writes:

For years, colleges complemented the government’s efforts by using their financial aid resources to open their doors to the neediest students. But those days appear to be in the past. Over the past several decades, a powerful enrollment management industry has emerged to show colleges how they can use their institutional aid dollars strategically in order to increase both their prestige and revenue.

Worse yet, there is compelling evidence to suggest that many schools are engaged in an elaborate shell game: using Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid they would have otherwise provided to financially needy students, and then shifting these funds to help recruit wealthier students. This is one reason why even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding, low-income students continue to take on heavier debt loads than ever before. They are not receiving the full benefits intended.

Overall, too many four-year colleges, both public and private, are failing to help the government achieve its college-access mission. They are, instead, adding hurdles that could hamper the educational progress of needy students, or leave them with mountains of debt after they graduate.

Will this new analysis, which demonstrates the problem is getting worse, have any more impact on Congress and the Department of Education than the first one did? Probably not. After the first study, I offered a blog criticizing Congress for creating a financial aid system that invites colleges to manipulate federal funds away from help for the low-income. Which resulted in an invitation to me by authorizing committee staff to visit the Hill for a chat. I was told I was wrong about staff not reading the report; they did. But I was also told that Congress would take no action because there was nothing Congress could do in the face of the powerful Washington-based higher education lobby.

Having once been a part of that lobby, as well as Congressional staff and Department of Education staff, I disagree. American higher education is sufficiently in trouble such that another business-as-usual, chummy legislative reauthorization of the Higher Education Act with the senescent, out-of-touch higher ed lobby will likely accelerate the already alarming growth of student indebtedness, a national problem affecting the whole economy. Moreover, many colleges during the next six-year reauthorization period will find themselves unable to keep up with the enrollment management and money laundering schemes tolerated if not encouraged under current federal law, and will be faced with shuting their doors.

It is no secret that many who toil at colleges and universities -- likely a large majority -- are troubled by the behaviors they believe they are forced into by the very success of their control of Congress: chasing rankings prestige at the expense of their missions; loading up the financially-needy with debt while awarding so-called merit aid to the dubiously (but well-off) meritorious; selling their institutional souls to outside funding sources. Occasionally a college president will shout "Stop us before we kill ourselves!", but no one in Congress is really listening.

The New America Foundation proposes mild carrot-and-stick adjustments to current federal law as a way to address the problems. These measures are better than nothing, but Congress would be better advised simply to face up to the failures of its current programs and act boldly to reform them.

Discovering Golden Treasure

September, 2014

Lincoln -- The goldenrod on our prairie northwest of Lincoln has been in full flower this month. Bright orange Monarch butterflies on bright yellow goldenrods make for irresistible photo opportunities.

So we had a smartphone photo of a local goldenrod handy when visiting the Bessey Herbarium in Nebraska Hall last week. Exactly which species of goldenrod was it, we asked. Turns out it was Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida). The oldest such specimen in the herbarium's collection dates from September 18, 1873; it was collected in Lancaster County by none other than the early Nebraska naturalist and professor Samuel Aughey, promoter (and perhaps originator) of the "rain follows the plow" theory and a great favorite of railroad companies.

But it was another goldenrod specimen in the collection, Tall Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), that convinced us we had discovered golden treasure. Tall Goldenrod is the Nebraska State Flower. In the herbarium, in a special cabinet, is the actual speciman that the Nebraska Legislature had before it when it made the designation in 1895. The backing paper has a note from Charles Bessey himself verifying it. The speciman was collected in Holt County in 1893 by Frederic Clements. This was the year Clements and Roscoe Pound crossed northern Nebraska, collecting plants for their subsequent publication Phytogeography of Nebraska, a work of far-reaching influence well beyond the borders of the state and nation.

The Bessey Herbarium is a remarkable place with both a current and historic collection but it receives scant support from the University and State. Its budget was cut severely in 2003 and funding has not been restored.

Nebraska's Good Time Fiasco

September, 2014

Lincoln -- Yesterday I watched, via the Internet, the Nebraska Legislature's entire (morning, afternoon, and evening) televised hearing at which a special committee took court-compelled testimony from Department of Corrections' employees and others to try to get to the bottom of a prisoner sentencing scandal.

The Nebraska Supreme Court determined in early 2013, in State v. Castillas, that the Department's way of calculating "good time" was incorrect. Some prisoners were being released too early. Department officials did nothing to change their method until the Omaha World-Herald discovered the problem over a year later and made it a headline story for months. Or so the scandal has unfolded. The State has since been attempting to round up the released prisoners in question and make them spend over 2000 additional man-years in prison at a cost to taxpayers of perhaps 50 million dollars.

Several state senators on the committee sensed that responsibility for the fiasco might rest at the feet of the Governor, who wanted to reduce prison overcrowding but also wanted to cut state budgets and taxes, hence no new construction to house prisoners and no compliance with the holding of the Supreme Court. Or that responsibility might rest at the feet of the Attorney General, whose office is understaffed and did not properly coordinate with the lawyers at the Department of Corrections.

But it became clear during the hearing that something else was at work: run-of-the-mill bureaucratic bungling. A call was not returned; an email attachment was not read; false confidence was placed in the idea that someone else was on top of the matter. When state senators began to piece together what the committee chairman called a comedy of errors, they were merciless in their condemnation of the employees. The employees did not help their cause, as most of them pointed fingers at each other. Polite senators said the testimony was unbelievable; one impolite senator called the Department's record administrator a fool, and baited the Department's former general counsel into trying to get him to admit he was incompetent.

The Attorney General himself decided to join the fun the next day, calling the legal staff at the Department of Corrections incompetent.

As a former Nebraska state employee, I'm not going to join the condemnation. Yes, the records administrator seems to have had one promotion too many into his position of responsibility, but the others do not deserve to have their names muddied forever. They were solid citizens who worked day after day, year after year, making state government work. They were public servants in the best sense.

Twice (long ago) I was a department head in state government. Every day I knew that something might go horribly wrong, and I might be held accountable because I chose to work on one stack of paper late into the night rather than another and something would fall through the cracks. But that was a risk I took every day, and I was prepared to take the consequences. If I was compelled to appear before a legislative committee, however, I would have behaved a little differently than the employees did yesterday. I would have said yes, I was culpable, and to every name I was called by a state senator, I would have said "at least" in regard to my action or inaction as related to the fiasco. I would have said I was there to take my medicine. If it meant rebuilding my life elsewhere, so be it. My words would not be cheeky; I would mean it.

One employee, Sharon Lindgren, almost did that. Clearly she was marginal to the whole affair, but took her medicine. Because heads had to roll, one was hers. She retired rather than being fired by the Director of Corrections (who, incidentally, was not disciplined himself). A senator asked why she did not fight the impending dismissal, if she was telling the truth of her limited involvement in the fiasco. She said she was not a wealthy woman and did not have the resources to employ counsel for the long appeal process and that she had her pride; if the Department did not want her services, she did not feel she could do a good job there. She is an experienced, capable attorney. It's a loss for the State.

In her last act as a public servant, Sharon Lindgren also opened up a line of inquiry that the committee would do well to pursue. What if the Nebraska Supreme Court decision was not thoughtfully made, and the Department of Corrections was right to resist implementing it immediately? After all, implementing it was a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose proposition. It would be costly; prisoners who had been released and were doing well would have their lives disrupted; dangerous criminals who did not want to return would resist, perhaps violently; crowding in the prisons would intensify; implementation might set off a litigation nightmare. State senators seemed to think there was no option but to implement the Supreme Court holding immediately, and berated those who did not do it, but were there no other options?

Sharon Lindgren informed the committee that in at least one case, Payan v. State, the Attorney General's office advised the Department of Corrections not to comply with a Supreme Court decision. She disagreed strongly with that advice and told everyone she knew that the advice was wrong, to no avail. If this is true, it is ironic, to say the least, that the Attorney General is calling Ms. Lindgren incompetent. Be that as it may, is there no way the executive branch could have brought an action to determine if the Supreme Court was fully aware of the consequences of its decision? True, the judicial branch may have quickly slapped down such an action but given the circumstances and what was at stake, I would not blame the Governor and the Attorney General for such leadership. After all, they are both elected officials who head the co-equal executive branch. This is not Andrew Jackson saying "John Marshall has made his decision, let him enforce it." (Which he actually didn't say, but might as well have.) Moreover, the way the Department of Corrections had been administering "good time" prior to the Supreme Court's 2013 decision had a legal rationale, the committee learned from a former records administrator, it just wasn't the one the Supreme Court eventually picked in its holding. And when a reader actually pores over State v. Castillas, it can be read so as to deal only with a mistake of a trial judge; there is no mention of how the Department of Corrections makes its computations. I look in vain for any clue that the author of the opinion (or his clerk) researched the whole matter concomitant with the implications of his holding.

If the executive branch is more interested in pointing fingers than leading the state out of this mess, there is always the legislative branch. A special session could deal with the Supreme Court's decision in any number of ways to mitigate its effects. If the Governor won't call one, the legislature can vote to call a special session itself.

One upshot of the fiasco so far, especially after the hearing yesterday, is that state employees will see how their careers can end in ignominy, with no one to defend their years of underpaid, overworked service. It will send a message to those who might think a career in state government is for them: Think again.