2015 Review in Higher Education
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In the world of higher education and college admissions, 2015 was a year of controversy.

Schools and government agencies and politicians and students all vied to influence the future of college in the United States. Issues related to student loan debt and admissions policies dominated headlines.

Here are some of the biggest news stories of 2015 in higher education.

  1. For-Profit Colleges Come Under Attack

2015 was a historically bad year for for-profit colleges, who have been increasingly blamed as major factor in the ongoing student debt crisis.

In the spring, Corinthian Colleges, one of North America’s largest for-profit colleges, received a deadly legal one-two punch: their license to operate in Canada was suspended in February, then the U.S. Department of Education fined them about $30 million in April for false advertising and misreporting data. Within a few weeks, they had closed all their campuses and filed for bankruptcy.

Other federal agencies including the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also stepped up their efforts to crack down on for-profit colleges. 2015 may well be remembered as the year for-profit higher education met its demise.

  1. Obama Administration Backtracks on College Ratings, College Savings Tax

Two Obama administration reforms involving higher education were beaten back this year.

In January, public backlash forced the White House to retract a proposed end to tax breaks on 529 college savings plans. Then, in June, the Department of Education threw its hands in the air and decided to give up on its proposed college ratings system after major pushback from college leaders.

So if there’s one lesson we learned in 2015, it’s that public outcry works and that when it comes to the politics of higher education, people are more than willing to cry out.

  1. Department of Education Debuts College Scorecard

That said, the Department of Education did release a toned down version of what had originally been proposed as an all out rankings system. The College Scorecard lets consumers access data on how affordable different colleges are and how students fare financially after graduation.

While the scope of the Scorecard is narrower than the initial project, the tool should nonetheless be useful for helping students figure out what schools give them the best bargain.

  1. Colleges Announce Rival to Common App

Although the Common App has ruled college admissions for years, over 80 prominent schools got together and announced in September a new alternative application being developed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.

The Common App challenger aims to reach a broader pool of applicants by starting the college admissions process earlier in high-school and improving interaction between school representatives and prospective students. Although it remains to be seen whether the Coalition will unseat the Common App from its position of dominance, this is a story you’re likely to hear more about when the Coalition system goes live in 2016.

  1. Department of Education Unveils Changes to Student Aid

The Department of Education announced several changes to student aid programs in 2015, including modifications to the FAFSA and a widening of the types of institutions eligible for federal money.

Beginning with applications for the 2017-2018 academic year, students and their families will be able to use income information from two years before the application deadline rather than from the year immediately prior in their FAFSA applications. They will also be able to submit the FAFSA in October rather than waiting until January. This change is expected to make federal aid more accessible for low-income students.

Additionally, the Department of Education announced in October that it will experiment with providing federal funding for MOOCs and skills boot camps. The move reflects the growing importance of non-traditional teaching paradigms in higher education.

  1. University of Wisconsin Ends Tenure System

Faculty at University of Wisconsin spent much of 2015 embroiled in a fight to keep their school’s tenure system intact. In the end, it was a fight they did not win, and the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law that would let university leadership fire professors at will.

Critics at Wisconsin argue the change will make it difficult to attract highly qualified faculty, but the move also has a wider significance: it is one of the most high-profile examples of a national trend towards more corporate models instead of traditional shared governance models in higher education that in many cases has pitted faculty against local politicians.

  1. Push for Free Community College Gathers Steam

President Obama opened 2015 by announcing a new plan to make two-year community college education free, saying he wanted to make college “as free and universal as high school is today.”

In September, he unveiled the College Promise Advisory Board as the next step towards making free community college happen. He also announced that the Department of Labor would provide $175 million in grants to expand apprenticeship programs.

The Obama administration’s proposal catapulted the issue of whether college should be free into the national discussion. Whether the College Promise Advisory Board’s plan for free community college pans out in the short term, it looks increasingly like the idea of free college may be here to stay.

  1. University of Missouri Protests Put Spotlight on Prejudice in Universities

During the final months of 2015, University of Missouri became a flashpoint for the issues related to prejudice at institutions of higher education that grabbed headlines for much of the year. After a series of racist incidents, protests gathered momentum and some students began demanding that the school’s president step down.

In early November, a graduate student at University of Missouri began a hunger strike, saying he wouldn’t eat again until the university’s president resigned. Later that week, black football players with the support of the school’s Athletics Department made public their decision not to play again until the president was gone. Within a day, the president had resigned.

The protests shone a spotlight on unrest surrounding continued racial prejudice at academic institutions. It also highlighted another important point: don’t ever mess with the football team!

  1. Court of Appeals Rejects Pay for College Athletes

2015 also saw a major challenge to the NCAA status quo. A lawsuit brought against the NCAA claimed that the organization “illegally restricted the earning power of football and men’s basketball players while making billions off their labor.”

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit subsequently ruled that the NCAA, while “not above antitrust laws,” was not under any obligation to pay athletes beyond the cost of college attendance. The Court also reversed a previous judge’s ruling that the NCAA should pay athletes up to $5,000 a year.

Prior to the ruling, it looked like the NCAA’s hugely profitable status as an organization simply for unpaid, amateur athletes rather than a professional sports association could be in jeopardy. But the decision ensured that the NCAA would be able to keep operating in its current form, even as a national debate over the role of college athletes flared up.

2016 promises to be another interesting year in higher education. Many of 2015’s top news stories centered around college access and affordability – see the proposal for free community college, the college scorecard, the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, the crackdown on for-profits and so on.

The cost of college remains a hot-button issue, so in that sense there’s a lot of unfinished business from 2015. If anything, the top college news stories from 2015 are probably a sign of what’s to come in the next year. Here’s to another year of controversial changes, for better or for worse, in higher education – happy 2016!

By Niels V.