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December 29, 2014

WGBH News is taking a look back with our series The Rewind. Each day we're listening to some of the top stories in 2014 in politics, science and higher education.

This year colleges and universities continued to face strong headwinds: rising costs, declining enrollment and pressure to address sexual assault on campus.

Sexual Assault On Campus

In April, for the first time, the federal government publicly named nearly 90 colleges and universities under investigation for allegedly mishandling sexual assault.

“It doesn't matter what coat she was wearing, whether she drank too much, whether it was in the back of a car, in her room, on the street,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “It does not matter if she initially said yes and then changed her mind and then said no. No means no, whenever it is stated.”

In response to Biden’s dramatic call to action, Harvard created a central office to investigate cases and announced a new policy designed to prevent sexual assault, lowering the burden of proof to find someone guilty. In October, Harvard law professors said that the new policy violates the rights of the accused. 

Meanwhile, MIT released a broad survey that polled students about their experiences with sexual assault on campus. One in six female undergraduates who responded said they had experienced sexual assault, although few reported the experience to authorities.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart told WGBH that MIT is facing a serious problem. "What we find from the survey is that we need more education in our community, and that's exactly what we're positioning ourselves to do," Barnhart said.

Online Learning and Competency-based Education

In 2014, colleges also positioned themselves to deal with low-cost online alternatives. Even as the hype surrounding free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, finally began to fizzle, online learning grew more popular than ever. 

So did competency-based education, which links new teaching models to learning outcomes.

"Far more than MOOCs, it stands to be a paradigm shift in the way we think about education,” said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, which is now offering the country's first fully accredited $10,000 bachelor's degree – completely online. 

LeBlanc said the idea is to measure what students actually know – and know how to do –at a time when families are increasingly questioning the value of a college degree.

Related: Harvard's Drew Gilpin Faust Defends the Value of College

“For hundreds of years, higher education has been based on a bunch of inputs: How many PhDs on your faculty? How big is your library? How grand are your buildings?” LeBlanc explained. “And with competency-based education, what we say is, 'If you can demonstrate your results; if you can demonstrate the claims you make for learning, then we care a lot less about how you got people there. And that opens up a world of new, innovative delivery models."

Efforts to Increase Access and Affordability

Many families spent 2014 hoping for a world of lower tuition and less student loan debt as the cost of college continued to outpace median family income. 

Two times in less than 12 months, college presidents met at the White House to discuss how they can make college more affordable and accessible.

"Too many students who take the crucial step of enrolling in college don't actually finish, which means they leave with the burden of debt and without the earnings and job benefits of a degree," President Obama said at the second White House summit.

To hold colleges and universities accountable, the Education Department released its contentious plan to rate colleges based on certain outcomes like whether colleges are admitting enough low- and middle-income students. 

Paul Glastris, editor of The Washington Monthly, said the next step is to tie federal funding to the ratings.

“That’s going to take an act of Congress, and I don’t think there’s much chance of this congress agreeing to that,” Glastris said.

For-profit Colleges Under Scrutiny

In 2014, for-profit colleges came under increasing fire from attorneys general and the Education Department. 

In July, WGBH covered the closing of one of the country’s largest for-profit chains, Corinthian Colleges, which had two campuses in Boston. We asked what shuttering campuses would mean for Corinthian’s 70,000 students. 

Since then, Democratic leaders have urged the Education Department to forgive the debt of Corinthian students, who, they say, were deceived into taking out loans they can't pay off.

So what would it take for the Education Department to act on those allegations?

In November, the Department widely supported a deal that would transfer 56 Corinthian campuses to a non-profit organization that doesn't have any experience running a college.

"I'm worried because there are a lot of students who have just been scammed," said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in a telephone interview.

Warren is leading a group of democrats who want the Department to discharge the loans of Corinthian's 59,000 remaining students.

"These are young people who are just trying to get an education,” Warren said. “They got tricked, trapped, lied to and ended up with debt that they can't deal with. And they certainly don't have a diploma that is going to help them pay off those debts."

Warren argues the federal government has the authority to ease the burden of student debt if a college violates students' rights.

As Corinthian fights several lawsuits in court, the for-profit giant says it’s committed to helping its remaining students earn their degrees. Corinthian says Warren's approach is “rash and ill-considered, especially for students who are working to complete their education.”

In a statement, the Education Department said it "appreciates the senators' concerns and it will continue to work on behalf of students' best interests."

But six months after the for-profit company shut down, there's still no word whether the Department will forgive Corinthian students' loans.

"The natural process for discharging a loan wouldn't come into play here," says Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst at the New American Foundation. Miller says colleges usually close only after dropping enrollment to almost zero.

"Here you're dealing with a campus that was prompted up by investors for far longer than it should have been and that's created a problem of scale that would not normally exist," Miller explained. "It's unclear how adaptable the regulations are to allow for discharge when you've got essentially an entire college that was committing academic malpractice."

The government can cancel federal student loans if a college commits academic malpractice or closes. However, if students finish before Corinthian shuts down, or they transfer their credit anywhere else, the government won’t be able to discharge their loans.

In many ways higher education has never experienced so much change and external pressure, and experts recommend that colleges reposition themselves to better serve their students because those headwinds are not expected to die down in 2015.

confronting cost, increasing access and success, 2014, year in review

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