President Obama: Please Don’t Follow Rick Perry on University ‘Reform’

By John Willingham, Editor

In his State of the Union address last week and then again in his speech on January 27 at the University of Michigan, President Obama made it clear that he has joined the fight to cut college tuition costs and reform the way universities operate so that they can deliver better “value” to students.

Value. The word is everywhere these days. Often it is measured by “outcomes,” another word of the times, less elegant but probably more relevant, suggesting a basic functionality that value may, at least on occasion, transcend.

When it comes to higher education reform, the two words have had a disquieting tendency to converge in meaning, so that what many alleged reformers mean by value is merely a quantitative increase, literally more “out-come” from whatever has been involved in production. In this way, value becomes productivity.

An emphasis on productivity, however, instead of on quality and excellence is a major threat to public university honors programs, where value is qualitative, deriving from smaller—not larger, more “functional”–classes; from outstanding teaching and support; and from the opportunity to work one-on-one with professors on undergraduate research.

Honors graduates benefit their states by often remaining near home and boosting the local economies, and they benefit their universities by improving graduation rates. This is the best form of value, in which the practical, the good of the whole, and the individual’s personal development all come together. But honors programs and colleges already find it difficult, if not quite impossible, to fund the type of education that fosters this true, best value.

The use of the word value in the context of university reform has been circulating for years, but more recently the conservative critics of public universities have indeed used the word as a synonym for “productivity,” by which they mean education on the cheap for as many students as possible. Some of these critics, most notably Richard Vedder of the aptly-named Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), candidly display their bias against public funding of, well, almost anything.

In addition to being a professor at Ohio University and a proponent of the Austrian school of economics, Vedder is the director of (CCAP) and a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). The TPPF is a conservative think tank that, with Vedder’s help and Gov. Perry’s support, launched an attack on Texas universities in 2010.

On December 21, 2010, Vedder commented in Forbes magazine that “there is no doubt in my mind today that governmental subsidies to higher education are excessive–our nation would be better off if we spent less. Indeed, I suspect no governmental spending commitment at all would be preferable to the situation today (although the optimum may be greater than zero).” [Emphasis added.]

It is fitting that the quote is from Forbes, because Vedder is also the man behind the annual Forbes‘ “America’s Best Colleges” list, which makes the private university bias of the annual U.S. News rankings look like an amicus brief on behalf of public colleges. Looking at the Forbes rankings of the 34 public research universities that are members of the prestigious American Association of Universities, we find that their average ranking is…243.

Forbes ranks Georgia Tech at 397—or 362 places lower than the university’s U.S. News ranking.

University leaders in Texas are well aware of Vedder because of his work for the TPPF. The foundation and Vedder led the attack on UT-Austin and Texas A&M last year. Vedder wrote a so-called study that criticized UT Austin, especially, for spending too much on academic research and for not requiring faculty to teach enough classes. An A&M professor later argued convincingly that the study was based on sloppy research and poor statistical analysis.

Gov. Perry and the TPPF claimed during the debate in Texas that it was possible to provide a bachelor’s degree to Texas students at a total four-year cost of $10,000. In light of the governor’s campaign for the presidency, the claim does not seem quite so astonishing as it did a year ago.

What is Value for the President?

But now, with President Obama’s recent emphasis on the public university reform issue, the overriding question becomes: What does value mean to the president and to Congress. Will the conservative business definition of productivity take hold, or will the proposed reforms do as little damage as possible to the hard-won gains in quality that most public universities have achieved?

“We are putting colleges on notice,” the president said in his Michigan speech. “You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”

While prestigious and wealthy private universities can keep pace with expenses because of huge endowments, most public universities cannot, especially after the dramatic cuts in state funding over the past two decades.

It is encouraging that, in his State of the Union speech and in news releases, the president discussed a “shared approach” to control tuition costs, requiring coordinated actions on the part of the federal government, the states, and the public universities themselves.

One part of this shared approach is to make more financial aid available to universities that do the following:

(1) “Setting responsible tuition policy, relatively lower net tuition prices and/or restraining tuition growth;
(2) “Providing good value to students and families, offering quality education and training that prepares graduates to obtain employment and repay their loans; and
(3) “Serving low-income students, enrolling and graduating relatively higher numbers of Pell-eligible students.”

So there’s that word value again, in paragraph 2. One hint from that paragraph is that post-graduation pay and employment will be key measures of value. (And evidence that loans will be repaid.) Indeed, the additional details already provided about the president’s plans make it clear just how important pay and employment will be:

“The President will call for a college scorecard for all degree-granting institutions, designed to provide essential information about college costs, graduation rates, and potential earnings, all in an easy-to-read format that will help students and families choose a college that is well-suited to their needs, priced affordably, and consistent with their career and education goals.” [Emphasis added.]

If the statement above is not a clear enough indication of the importance of income as a value metric, the detailed plan adds the following:

“The President is also proposing to begin collecting earnings and employment information for colleges, so that students can have an even better sense of the post post-graduation outcomes they can expect.” Yes, outcomes.

One reason that the president’s focus on pay causes some disquiet is that Richard Vedder and other conservative critics of public universities likewise cite pay as a critical outcome. But pay, if it is used at all as a measure of educational value, requires careful consideration of geographical factors as well as a deep respect for the differing missions that public universities may have.

Our research at PublicUniversityHonors.Com shows that while postgraduate pay, at entry level and at mid-career, correlates to Forbes and U.S. News rankings, pay does not correlate with some measures of excellence, such as the number of prestigious undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships earned by graduates, or the depth of honors curricula. It is noteworthy that the scholarships and honors curricula DO correlate significantly, as they should if one is concerned about the highest levels of excellence.

If there is in fact an over-emphasis on pay as a metric to determine federal and state support, universities will eventually be forced to reduce resources for the humanities and social sciences, and even some hard sciences, because students who graduate with majors in these disciplines do not earn as much as business, engineering, and computer science graduates.

Honors programs and colleges are already hard-pressed to integrate honors curricula with the demanding departmental requirements for some remunerative majors. With fewer honors and non-honors faculty and course offerings in the less remunerative disciplines, the brightest students may emerge from their public universities with a huge disadvantage as compared to their counterparts from private elites, who will continue to benefit from smaller classes and the development of critical thinking.

No longer will public honors programs be able to compete with the elite private institutions, unless the honors programs or colleges have large private endowments. Few are so fortunate. Public universities as a group will increasingly be identified as training institutions rather than true universities committed to excellence across the disciplines.

The president, to his credit, said that the states “have to do their part by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets…We know that these state budget cuts have been the largest factor in tuition increases over the past decade.”

Yet how realistic is it to hope for stronger state support now that the state legislators and governors have become accustomed to forcing universities to take the brunt of criticism for tuition increases. With legislative support for some flagship universities now below 15 percent of total operating costs, just how far are we already from Richard Vedder’s dream of zero funding?

The productivity crowd has, for the moment, defined what value is. If the president and Congress agree with them, public university graduates may be lucky to get what Rick Perry predicted: a degree worth, maybe, ten grand.

Honors Residence Halls, Auburn University

Location, location, location. Most of the coed honors residence halls at Auburn are located in the “Quad,” smack in the center of campus. Not that honors students would need to fall out of bed late and need to make it to class in five minutes…but they could do so if they had to.

Housing is hard to come by at Auburn, but less so for honors students. The honors dorms at the Quad are Harper, Broun, Little, and Teague. These halls are older than the new, apartment-like Village dorms, but, again, it’s the location that makes the Quad honors halls so appealing. Honors students may also be assigned to older dorms on the “Hill.”

Please know that even honors students have to mind the details and the deadlines when it comes to reserving a room at Auburn. Honors students should also know that if they want to live in one of the honors halls, they cannot qualify if they want a roommate who is not in honors.

The official view: “All Quad rooms are configured in suites consisting of two double rooms (two students per room) connected by a bathroom. There are a very limited number of single rooms available. Quad rooms are furnished with an extra long (80”), bunkable twin bed, study desk and chair, chest of drawers, and closet for each resident. Rent includes all utilities including basic T.V. cable and wireless internet service. Washers and dryers are located in a laundry facility centrally located in the Quad Center. Residents receive their mail and packages at the mailroom located in that building as well.”

Students and college sites consider the Village to be among the best college living options in the country, and honors students can choose the Village over the convenience of the Quad. The Village is much newer, somewhat more expensive, but more private with quarters that are essentially apartments. Take it from a resident:

“Auburn’s Village housing is probably the best college living in the country, since instead of just a room, the Village is more like an apartment where one gets their own room. Auburn is expanding the Village dorms in order to house more students.”

Honors Residence Halls, University of Delaware

The Russell Complex at the University of Delaware features dorms with a “Z-shape” interior so that the two occupants have a diagonal separation between them for extra privacy. Russell is more or less required for freshman honors students (see official description below), but whatever a new student thinks about this requirement or the dorm rooms themselves, the Russell dining hall offers three things that can cheer up tired and stressed out students: pizza, hard ice cream, and omelets.

The word is that Russell is the place on campus where these appealing choices are the best.
Now for the official word:

“Freshmen admitted to the Honors Program are housed together in the Russell Complex on East Campus, a popular location that is a short walk from the University’s Morris Library. East Campus is also home to the Perkins Student Center, the Harrington Fitness Center, the Russell Dining Hall, and the Harrington Computer Site.

“Living in first-year Honors housing is a requirement of the freshman year in Honors, although it is possible to get a waiver of this requirement if you plan to live at home with a parent or guardian and commute to campus. The Honors freshman community is enhanced by Russell Fellows, upper-class Honors peer mentors who choose to continue living with the freshmen. They serve as a resource to help with the adjustment to college life and to plan programs and community building activities both inside and outside the residence halls.”

The Russell Complex houses not only honors freshmen but ROTC students as well. Russell has undergone a fairly recent renovation, and according to students the rooms and grounds are clean. The Resident Assistants and Russell Fellows are good at planning entertaining activities for the whole complex and for individual floors.”

In each double room there is a sleep area and a separate work desk and computer area. The desk measures 42 inches wide and 24 inches deep. Thompson and Lane are other honors dorms. All are located on East Campus, one of the best spots on the scenic but fairly large UD campus. Be aware, however, that Russell is not air-conditioned. Perhaps the best news is that most classes on “the Green” are only five minutes away. And “the Beach,” a popular campus common area, is close to the complex.

The Russell Complex also has a shared kitchen and a “quiet” study room, in addition to the adjacent dining hall.

Honors Residence Halls, University of Alabama

Of course, parents and prospective students are concerned about the honors curriculum, the quality of instruction, and the success rate of graduates—but let’s don’t forget that at the end of the day, literally, what may matter most is where we go to rest, or study, or…eat.

As a general rule, honors programs and colleges assign honors students to the best residence halls or dorms on campus. Honors colleges might offer an advantage, versus honors programs, in some cases because the colleges are often established or expanded in accordance with the principle that honors students are a group apart that will benefit from housing that is quieter, more centrally located, or more open to living/learning opportunities.

Although we do not plan to discuss the residence halls in alphabetical order according to the name of the universities of which they are a part, the first honors residences we will mention are those at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

The Honors College living options are in Riverside West, Lakeside West, Ridgecrest North and Ridgecrest West. “These coed living-learning facilities form the center of the University’s tightly-knit honors community. Because of the demand for Honors Housing, only incoming Honors College freshmen and current residents of Honors Housing can be accommodated. Space does not permit Honors College participants living in other residence halls to move to Honors Housing. For more information, please visit”

These dorms are located in the same general area. Riverside stands out because the pool and clubhouse that serves all the honors halls are located there. Another important feature of the honors dorms is there location near Lakeside Dining, which is said to have the best food on campus. The honors quarters offer a choice of (relatively) spacious rooms: singles, or two and four room suites. Some of these have shared kitchen facilities and a shared and furnished living/dining room.

Honors halls are not the closest residences to the center of the UA campus, but they are only about 10 minutes away from the heart of the campus, and are they quite close to the “Ferg,” the university’s student center. Some students believe that Lakeside/Ridgecrest are the best honors dorms because they have full community kitchens, especially important to students who enjoy the chance to cook some of their own meals.

Another great feature of UA residence halls is that the honors dorms are not the only excellent dorms on campus. Overall, UA housing is far above average, and in some cases is outstanding.

Leaders in ‘All Scholars’ Awards

The “All Scholars” term refers to the number of prestigious undergraduate and postgraduate awards won by students at the Fifty universities. Students at some of the Fifty excel in earning prestigious postgraduate scholarships (Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, Truman, Gates), while students at other universities are more successful in winning the best-known undergraduate scholarships (Goldwater, Udall). And some universities have students who do well in both categories, especially those at or near the top of the list below.

For this metric, all Rhodes awards are included; Marshall and Gates from 2001–2011; all Truman awards; all Churchill awards; and all Udall and Goldwater awards. Fulbright awards were adjusted for the size of undergraduate populations at each university.

As noted in previous posts, correlations of scholarships to U.S. News rankings are not strong for the whole data set of fifty universities. The list below includes universities above the median for the whole set. Note: Revised, February 22, 2012.

Virginia 1
North Carolina 2
Washington 3
Michigan 4
Wisconsin 5
Kansas 6
Illinois 7
Arizona State 8
Minnesota 9
Arizona 10
UT Austin 11
Penn State 12
Georgia 13
Michigan State 14
Iowa 15
Arkansas 16
Indiana 17
Pitt 18
Florida 19
South Carolina 20
Colorado 21
Delaware 22
NC State 23
Nebraska 24
Ohio State 25

Revised March 28, 2012.

A Sample of Average Admission Test Scores, GPAs

On a separate page (Universities, by Review Category) we list actual or estimated ranges for minimum entrance requirements. For example, University A might appear in the 1300–1400 SAT range, but the actual minimum could be 1350.

In this post, we will list actual or estimated average scores and GPA’s for recently admitted students to 24 of the 50 honors colleges or programs in our survey. For some we will list SAT scores in two parts, and for others the scores listed will also include the SAT writing score. ACT scores will be reported if available. Although we do not have actual average test scores for Michigan, North Carolina, UCLA, UC San Diego, Virginia, and Wisconsin, the scores would be above SAT 1400/2100, perhaps closer to 1500/2200.

Arizona, SAT 1309, ACT 29, unweighted GPA 3.87
Arizona State, SAT 1314, ACT 29, unweighted GPA 3.84
Arkansas, ACT 32, weighted GPA 4.1
Clemson, SAT 1418, GPA top 3%
Connecticut, SAT 1400/ACT 32, GPA top 5%
Delaware, SAT 2090, unweighted GPA 3.98
Georgia, SAT 1473, 4.03 GPA
Indiana, SAT 1385, ACT 31.4, unweighted GPA 3.99
Iowa, SAT 1340/ACT 30, unweighted GPA 3.8
Kansas, SAT 1400, ACT 32, unweighted GPA 3.96
Maryland, SAT 1400+, 4.3 weighted GPA
Massachusetts, SAT 1345, top 5%
Mississippi, ACT 30, GPA 3.85
Missouri, 30 ACT, unweighted GPA 3.8+
Oregon, SAT 1360, unweighted GPA 3.93
Penn State, SAT 2080, ACT 32, 4.0 GPA
South Carolina, SAT 1427/ACT 32, weighted GPA 4.6
Stony Brook, SAT 1360, unweighted GPA 3.9
UT Austin Plan II, SAT 2166
UT Austin Liberal Arts Honors, SAT 1370
UC Irvine, SAT 1430, weighted GPA 4.2
Vermont, SAT 1380/ACT 31, GPA top 5–7%
Washington, SAT 2080, ACT 31, unweighted GPA 3.92