Monday, March 18, 2019

DeWine Higher Ed Budget: Where there's hope ...

As we move forward with what could be the most consequential Ohio biennial budget for higher education in a generation, I want everyone to keep in mind the graphic on the left, courtesy of the Education Trust. What it shows is quite simple: It is twice as expensive for Ohioans to attend college in Ohio than it is for Californians to attend college in California (Ohio is the yellow bar; California is the smallest bar on the right).

That's right. Even with California's cost of living being through the roof, it is still half the relative cost of attending college in Ohio.

Why do I bring this up? Because this budget has the potential to make a serious dent in our status at the 8th most expensive place to attend college in the United States. Gov. Mike DeWine and his Lt. Gov. Jon Husted have put a lot on their efforts to get more Ohioans with degrees and high-quality credentials.

But if their budget is any indication, there is still work to do for Higher Education Subcommittee Chairman Rick Carfagna. I'll go through some highlights.

Micro Degrees

Both DeWine and Husted touted their efforts to allow Ohioans to accumulate certificates in as little time as a few weeks (their words), calling these "microdegrees." It's a trendy new movement in education -- quickly attainable certificates that show employers you can do the job you're being considered for. See, here's the problem. What happens when the job leaves, or if the student doesn't end up liking the job? Do those with a microdegree in, say artificial intelligence now have to go for one in data science? How many of these microdegrees will students have to attain in order to succeed in a work environment where they may change jobs 15-20 times?

As I've always said, it's more efficient and effective to educate someone once than train them 20 times.

I'm not saying microdegrees won't be a key component in a state's higher education portfolio. But when investing in them is a state's big play in higher education, I'm not so sure.

Ohio College Copportunity Grants and State Share of Instruction

This is where Ohio could make the biggest dent in the cost issues outlined above. Currently, OCOG provides a pittance, relative to the cost of college --  the result, frankly, of the state cutting the program during the recession and not returning it to its pre-recession level.

But its greatest shortcoming isn't necessarily in the amount of money it provides students; it's how many students can receive these state-level Pell-like Grants. First of all, the expected family contribution limit is $2,190. The EFC for Pell recipients is more than double that. So simply increasing OCOG eligibility to that of Pell would increase the number of OCOG recipients by about 35,000 students.

Also, OCOG has so many limits on it that students end up receiving far less than they should, if any at all. Because it's a Pell-first program, all of a student's Pell award is counted against their OCOG award. And it's all based on tuition. So if a student's Pell award is big enough to cover tuition, their OCOG could be zero. In addition, because of this rule, no student at an Ohio community college or technical school qualifies for OCOG, even though students attending community colleges are the most economically challenged in the state. Finally, OCOG students can only spend the money on tuition and books. However, GI Bill recipients can spent their OCOG awards on more life costs. So there's already a recognition that OCOG could help balance a student's many life costs.

DeWine's budget increases the amount of an OCOG grant by $500 at a cost of about $60 million. But it appears there is no change in who qualifies or what it can be spent on. Instead of spending $50-60 million more on OCOG to give a limited number of students a few hundred dollars more, the state should instead use that additional revenue to bring more students into OCOG. Allow them to get their money, regardless of Pell. Let community college students qualify. And let OCOG be spent on more than just tuition and books.

As for SSI, this is the main source of revenue for Ohio's colleges and universities. DeWine boosts the amount by 1 percent a year in each year of the biennium, which is far short of inflation. Then he tells schools they have to freeze tuition for all incoming students as they progress through the school. So if you pay $10,000 your freshman year, that's what you pay for all four years. Here's the issue: most Ohio colleges and universities already do this, only under this budget they can't make up for these tuition guarantees with additional tuition or fee adjustments, forcing colleges and universities to cut costs somewhere.

Beefing up SSI and OCOG are the two best ways for Ohio leaders to see that yellow bar above slide to the right. As of right now, I fear this budget won't budge that line too much.

STEM Investment

The DeWine budget boosts the Choose Ohio First STEM scholarship from $16 million to $40 million. This is a program to try to get more Ohio students to choose STEM disciplines and only pays for freshman year. My understanding is even at $16 million, Ohio struggles to find enough students for the program. I'm still waiting to see the plans to engage more students for the more than doubling of the program.

Also, DeWine's budget flat funds medical education investment and gives a middling 1 percent increase to Nurse education grant programs. Again, nursing is perhaps the most in-demand STEM discipline in our state's largest employment sector -- health care. It makes sense to invest heavily in this profession.

Over the next few days and weeks, we'll hear testimony about ways to make post-secondary options more accessible and affordable for more Ohioans. I look forward to working with everyone to improve on these efforts. Because our students and economy are counting on us to get this right.

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