1. Federal Education Funding
Last spring, while the nation was in a frenzy about the health care bill, education advocates had their eyes on another prize: The student aid bill, which was passed in the same reconciliation process. As with health care, a lot of compromises were made, but in the end $36 billion went to increase Pell Grants, $750 million went toward the College Access Grant Program, $1.5 billion went to increase income-based repayment benefits for federal student loan borrowers, $2 billion went to improve education and vocational training services at community colleges and $2.55 billion went toward minority-serving institutions.
In addition to the financial boost, the bill passed the direct loans rules, which ended the bank-based lending system for federal aid and cut costs significantly by eliminating the middle man. As a result of the savings, more money is being directed toward student loans.
2. Tuition Protests
In the last couple of years, major tuition hikes have emerged as a side effect of the budgetary distress at American colleges and universities. And this year it got so bad that students took to the streets. In March, students in California staged massive protests against out of control tuition at California community colleges and public universities.
Their actions sparked a national movement, and this fall students and education groups across the country participated in the second National Day of Action to Defend Public Education. This round featured less rancor and more antics, but the message was the same: Keeping public education accessible and affordable should be a top priority for our nation's politicians.
3. Unpaid Internships
Traditionally, college students have earned college credit and valuable work experience (not to mention business connections) through unpaid internships. Strictly speaking, those internships are supposed to be learning experiences, although a little bit of office drudge work often crept in.
But with the economic downturn, many companies started turning to unpaid interns to take the place of paid regular employees. So the Department of Labor sent out a friendly little reminder about labor laws and the (rather strict) rules governing what is, and isn't, okay in an unpaid internship.
The clarification stirred up quite a bit of dust in the higher education world, with some students coming out with horror stories of unpaid internship practices and others worrying that no companies will grant internships now that the DOL is watching them. So far, that's proven to be untrue, but hopefully those internships are at least a little more legitimate.
4. National Progress Report on Education
Early in his presidency, Obama announced that he wanted to put the country back on track for being a world leader in educational attainment. In response, the College Board formed the Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education, which studies the pipeline from preschool through college. The group's goal is to identify ways in which American schools can increase college completion rates.
This summer, the commission released its first national progress report, and the outlook was pretty grim. But it also identified areas in which U.S. schools are doing well, and offered ten key recommendations for improvement.
5. Common Core Standards
Part of the ongoing effort to improve public education in the U.S. is a movement toward developing a set of core academic standards. Ideally, these standards would be adopted voluntarily by all states, reducing the drastic geographic imbalances in educational quality and boosting overall student performance.
After a year of hard work developing the standards, with lots of public feedback and controversy, the initiative officially launched this summer. The next step: Convincing politicians, administrators, educators and parents that adopting the standards is a good idea. Keep an eye on this one in 2011.
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6. Student Aid Reform
After wrestling more funding out of Congress for higher education, the feds tackled another major task: Reforming student aid rules. The Department of Education proposed a series of guidelines that would clarify and tighten the rules governing which students and institutions can qualify for aid, as well as when they're eligible, with the goal of reducing out of control student debt.
One aspect of the guidelines, the gainful employment rules, set off a storm of controversy over recruiting and lending practices in higher ed, including a series of Congressional hearings. As of this writing, the issue has yet to be resolved.
7. Los Angeles Teacher Database
Just before the school year began, the Los Angeles Times set off a storm of controversy with its teacher ratings database. The project offers effectiveness ratings for more than 6,000 elementary school teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The scores are based on 'value-added' measurements, which compare students' test scores to expected results. Needless to say, teachers weren't happy as privacy concerns were raised and more fuel was added to the fiery debate over how to best measure educator performance.
8. Humanities Program Cuts
Like the rest of us, higher education has fallen on tough financial times and some schools decided to take drastic measures. This fall, SUNY Albany announced that it plans to phase out five humanities programs over the next two years: French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater.
In the meantime, the University of Minnesota has started turning away Ph.D. applicants who would have received financial assistance through fellowships or teaching positions, most of whom have been in the humanities. And the University of Iowa is evaluating the possibility of reducing or eliminating 14 'troubled' programs, half of which are in the humanities.
The announcements were met with outrage in the education community, but schools insist that it's a necessary step and their choice to make. It's a tough time to be in the humanities!
9. Kindergarten to College
Recent research has shown that, among students planning to go to college, those who have college savings funds are seven times more likely to attend. But those funds are often the province of the wealthy, whose odds of attending college are already high. So the city of San Francisco set out to level the playing field by launching Kindergarten to College, a program that opens a college savings fund for every entering kindergartner in the city's public schools.
The city starts them off with $50, and is bending over backwards to make it easy for even the lowest-income parents to keep up regular contributions, including offering fund matching programs and other incentives.
10. The DREAM Act
The year in education closed with an eleventh hour attempt to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act through Congress. The bill is designed to provide a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who attended (and graduated from) high school in the U.S. Candidates must have entered the U.S. before the age of 16, currently be no older than 30 and have no criminal record.
Unfortunately, the act failed to pass the lame-duck Congressional session at the end of 2010. President Obama called this failure his 'biggest disappointment' and vowed to try to revive it in 2011.