Higher Ed Reform—Here We Go!

My first step for significantly improving college completion rates in Utah will be to require 4 years of math in high school—(or, if a student is not planning to attend college, an opt-out to a vocational certificate program). That way, our students will leave high school (1) ready for college or (2) ready for the workforce. Right now, they are leaving high school ready for neither college nor the workforce.

Math is where dreams of a college degree go to die. If a college student takes one (ONE!) remedial course, that student has a mere 25% likelihood of completing college. (Time and money are the enemies of completion.). Yet, more than half of Utah high school graduates going straight into college must take remedial math. Couple those two facts, and it should surprise no one that most Utah college students never receive a degree. Because they aren’t prepared for college, we take their time and money, and we dash their dreams. We will change that by requiring the fourth year of high school math.

I will run legislation to make the basic high school program 1-2-3-More. The fourth-year math course will be the appropriate course for each student. For most students, that course at least should be Math 1030 or 1050—a college concurrent enrollment course that will count toward a degree or, in many cases, completely satisfy the math requirement for a degree.

Completing 1030 or 1050 in high school will be the difference between college failure and a college degree for many of our students. This is especially true for students who leave for Mormon missions at 18- or 19-years old. If they take 1030 or 1050 before their missions, they can become college graduates; if they do not, they likely will not be. That is tragically simple math.

This curriculum change will require additional steps and additional financing. But the 1-2-3-More requirement must be put in place. We have decades of evidence proving that we hurt our children—truly dooming them to failure in college—by not adequately preparing them for college with 4 years of high school math.

College Performance Funding

With the legislative session fast approaching, I wanted to update where I currently stand regarding the Senate side of higher education appropriations. More accurately, I should say that I will report where I have been moved to by the many, many discussions I have enjoyed regarding reform, graduation pathways, and performance funding. Thanks to all who have worked to guide me and this process. I have learned a great deal. And—please note—I continue to learn a great deal. This process has been extremely iterative, and it will continue to be so. We will walk out of the legislative session with a product and direction that all can be proud of. Please help dig in and get us to that point!

Without getting too deep in the weeds of higher education, Utah policymakers can set funding parameters that can positively focus the efforts of those in higher education to achieve better outcomes. Policymakers should focus on the quality of our graduate-level research and our overall graduation rates.

Our current focus primarily concerns growth. In a rapidly-growing state like Utah, growth is funding flypaper. Once we touch it, we don’t go anywhere else. By focusing on growth, we accomplish growth, but our research and our overall excellence are not where they should be.

A system of higher education cannot be better than the quality of research in that system. Graduate research is the tide that lifts all boats—or can lift all boats. I suggest that funding start with a dedicated percentage of total new funding each year going to graduate research. Performance should be measured in at least two ways: (1) the degree that R1 institutions share research opportunities with our other non-R1 research institutions (i.e., this could be a simple matter of the other 6 institutions grading the two R1 institutions) and (2) the amount of outside money leveraged by our increased investment.

Additional appropriations should point the institutions to improved quality by rewarding (1) resident graduations, (2) moving first-time resident freshman through 30 credit hours their first year, including a degree-related math and declaring a major, and (3) moving those resident students through 60 credit hours in two years. We know how students who complete degrees behave. They take full course loads, and they declare majors early. We currently take too much time and too much money from too many students who do not complete degrees. We harm many of those students by letting them wander, instead of actively guiding them. Our students will benefit from institutional incentives to actively guide them through college to completion.

I propose 30 credit hours in a year, instead of 2 semesters (likewise, 60 credit hours in 2 years, not 4 semesters), in order to (1) reflect the reality that many of our students must also hold down jobs and (2) to perhaps increase summer campus utilization and increase flexible course offerings for students.

Note that I do not put a time limit on the graduation metric. Let’s get students started on the right path. Beyond that, let’s graduate everyone who started—whether some manage to complete in 3 years or others come back after 50 years.

The graduation metric should include a split reward when a student timely starts at Snow College, Salt Lake Community College and possibly our USU regional campuses (making it through the 30- and 60-credit hour metrics) and, then, completes a bachelor’s degree at another USHE institution. The intent of the split reward would be to streamline student transitions between our institutions.

I suggest that each metric be weighted for first-generation college students and populations that traditionally struggle to complete.

I suggest we also consider a metric that weighs institutional efficiency, possibly resident degrees per resident full-time equivalent (FTE) students.

The degree-related math requirement could be satisfied by a college credit previously awarded (i.e., AP, concurrent enrollment 1030, 1040, or 1050). This should provide incentive for our colleges to more actively shape incoming freshman, by actively encouraging 4 years of high school math, including the completion of a college math course.

I met last week with President Wight to discuss a performance-funding plan that he, President Pershing, and President Wyatt crafted. I like many elements of that plan. The two plans are not competing. Again, this is an iterative process, where many ideas and much discussion will lead us to the right place.

Graduation MAPs (Most-Affordable Pathways)

We can eliminate many known graduation obstacles by requiring Utah colleges to take direct financial responsibility for the progress of students. I am calling this college completion program “Graduation MAPs” (Most Affordable Pathways). This proposal has the endorsement of my House co-chair of the higher education appropriations committee, Rep. Keith Grover.

I want to mention upfront that this proposal is motivated in large part by my absolute confidence that the Utah System of Higher Education (“USHE”) and our Utah colleges and universities have the right leadership in place to successfully take this bold step. I deeply love these dedicated professionals and public servants. With appropriate legislative encouragement—which includes adequate funding and significant deference to Higher Ed’s vastly superior experience and knowledge of detail—our higher education leaders will craft innovative, effective solutions.

One might ask, “If you have such confidence in the professionals, why the legislative push?” Simple. That is how the system works best. As I tell my friends in higher education, “You know all the questions, and you have all the answers. Left to your own devices, you would figure it all out . . . in 30 or 40 years. My job is to get you there in 3 or 4.” Someone has to get the stakeholders to the table and keep them there until they make the hard decisions.

Utah colleges currently lack financial incentive to graduate students. To the contrary, significant revenue is generated by students wandering aimlessly through the system, taking courses that do not lead to a degree. Tragically, a majority of tuition revenue in the Utah System of Higher Education (“USHE”) is paid by students who will never graduate.

No doubt, students own some of the responsibility for wandering in the system and not completing. But, much of the responsibility belongs to the State of Utah. Graduation MAPs will hold the State accountable for its shortcomings. That way—and only that way—those shortcomings will be corrected.

Graduation MAPs will apply to students who commit to completing a degree in 8 semesters (over a six-year period). Those students must take and pass at least 15 credit hours/semester in specified classes, often in a specific order. They must pick a major before starting their third semester.

In exchange for those guided efforts, each Utah college will provide the courses necessary for MAP students to graduate within 8 semesters. Tuition will not increase for MAP students more than 2%/year. If USHE is unable to graduate a MAP student within 8 semesters, USHE will pick up the entire cost of the students’ tuition and fees until the remaining courses are completed.

Graduation MAPs and the resulting financial accountability will force USHE to deal with several known obstacles to graduation. I will describe a few of those obstacles.

1.  Space in gateway courses (pre-requisites) often is not available to students. So, students must wait a semester or a year to take the gateway course—giving an upper hand to the 2 great enemies of college completion: time and money. If USHE shoulders financial responsibility for that wasted time and money, solutions will blossom (e.g., opening more class sections, creating space by dropping non-attending students, and employing more efficient delivery methodologies).

2.  USHE institutions are not sufficiently aligned regarding degree requirements, transfer of credits, and quality of instruction. That non-alignment forces students to take or retake additional courses—again giving an upper hand to the time and money demons. Financial accountability will force institutions and deans to align graduation requirements and improve the quality of courses at all institutions (so that Institution A legitimately can accept course credits from Institution B).

3.  Utah’s higher education system lacks sufficient flexibility. Requiring USHE to keep its 8-semester promise to graduation MAP students likely will require a more robust “General Studies Degree” and improved institutional collaboration and distance-learning options to accommodate students who move from one institution to another (where, for example, the original major may not exist).

4.  Many high school graduates simply are not prepared to complete college in 8 semesters. USHE must work to remediate those students; but, USHE cannot be expected to do the work of K12 and college instruction in 8 semesters. Graduation MAPs will force USHE to have the difficult conversations with high schools and parents that it should have been having for the past several decades. Things will change when the parents of Utah high school graduates with 4.0 GPAs are told, “Your child doesn’t qualify for Graduation MAPs, because (s)he is not ready for college math or English.” Currently, those parents are unaware that their children have been set up to fail. (A student who takes a remedial class has a 25% likelihood of completing college; by the way, math 1010 is remedial).

5. Concurrent enrollment courses (college courses that high school students take for dual credit) need some refinement. Some courses don’t track toward a major. Other courses don’t deliver the needed competencies. It shouldn’t be too hard to identify the good and the less good in our evolved concurrent enrollment offerings. Forcing USHE to be more accountable for the real value of concurrent enrollment courses will focus Utah on what college courses will most benefit the students.

Those are the broad strokes. Please poke, prod, bomb, comment, or provide other input to make it better.

Higher Education Reform

I had an epiphany regarding the Utah System of Higher Education (“USHE”) and the Utah Legislature’s oversight of higher education. In short, we have been hurting our students (and often parents): (1) by not providing proper guidance, (2) by not better aligning our 8 colleges and universities, and (3) by forcing students to waste time and money by not offering enough openings in prerequisite courses.

Utah colleges and universities take a lot of money every semester for every student (through taxpayer money and tuition). In exchange for that money, our institutions should provide instruction and an efficient pathway toward a college degree.

Students often amass credits that don’t point them to a degree. We call those non-degree-related credits “surplus.” We blame the students for amassing “surplus” credits. And, after students have amassed too many “surplus” credits, we even have policies to charge them even more money (a “surcharge”) for the remaining credits they will need to secure a degree.

This seems backwards. Lots of businesses will sell customers as many superfluous products as they possibly can. Utah colleges and universities should not be in that business. Instead, our institutions should effectively counsel and guide students on the best pathway to get a degree as affordably as possible. If USHE institutions fail to do that, they are being negligent. In many cases, the blame is theirs, not the student’s.

Utah colleges and universities spend a lot of effort to recruit students and take their tuition. Do they spend as much effort ensuring that students are on an efficient pathway to graduate? Do they spend as much effort making sure that pre-requisite courses are available to students, so students don’t spin their wheels (paying for and attending classes they don’t need)? Do they spend as much effort making sure that credits transfer from one Utah institution to another?

Here is what I’m thinking. General education courses are important—to both expose a college student to various disciplines and to lay a proper foundation for higher learning. General education courses should occupy the first year of college. Beyond that, students should be working toward a specific degree. A pathway should be laid out for each student to obtain that degree in 3 more years or less (120 total credit hours or less).

If a student does not pick a major or changes majors or takes courses outside that pathway, maybe nothing needs to change from our current practices. Similarly, if a student cannot take a full-time caseload, maybe nothing changes. They take the courses as best they can.

But, if a student picks a major and puts full-time effort toward obtaining that degree, the student should be entitled to a certain level of guidance and certainty. If the student lives up to his/her end and the institution doesn’t, responsibility should rest with the institution.

If, however, an institution cannot establish a pathway for a student to obtain a degree in 120 total credit hours, all degree-related instruction to the student beyond 120 total credit hours will be free. (And, by the way, a student would be free to transfer between USHE institutions; yes, this would put a huge burden on the system to better align our institutions and degrees).

Likewise, if a student takes a full course load of degree-related courses every semester, all degree-related instruction to the student beyond 120 total credit hours will be free. (Yes, this would put a huge burden on the system to make prerequisite courses available to students).

The new burdens of this proposal—better counseling, better alignment of courses and majors within the Utah System of Higher Education, and better availability of prerequisite courses—are things our system already should have addressed. The benefits of this proposal to our students, our graduation rates, and our economy could be significant.

Currently, our 8 colleges and universities have financial incentives to keep students as long as they can. They have no financial incentives to move students through the process efficiently. They have no financial incentives to graduate students. If they had financial incentives to graduate students in 4 years, they would do it more often.

Working with the appropriate stakeholders, I believe that legislation to this effect could be passed in the next general session. I would want it to go into effect for first-year students entering our Utah colleges and universities in the fall of 2015. That would give our system a full year from today to make any necessary changes.

Legislative Participation

This year, I am running SB 69 (Pre-judgment Interest)—the first bill I have ever run at the request of the insurance industry. I originally agreed to get involved with the issue and work directly with the industry, to better establish my role as an impartial broker on personal injury legislation.

The bill first was presented in committee on February 19th. Though a motion was made to pass the bill to the floor with a favorable recommendation, and though that motion would have passed, I took the unusual step of making a substitute motion to hold the bill in committee. The point of that step, as I explained was (1) to respect the role and abilities of the very good Senate Judicial, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice chaired by Senator Madsen and (2) to invite concerned parties to help me craft good legislation.

Consistent with my past experience, I was delighted by the significant participation of leading members of the trial bar to help improve the legislation. That is quite a commitment to legislative process; after all, as the law currently stands, plaintiffs get a handsome rate of interest from the date of injury, even though the actual costs are not incurred until later date. Together, we crafted a very good bill, and I asked Chairman Madsen to again place the bill on the committee’s agenda.

Today in committee, to my great surprise and significant disappointment, I experienced first hand the bad faith engagement of the trial bar that had previously been reported to me by the insurance industry. Despite holding my own bill for 9 days—important time in a short legislative session—the trial bar paraded out, for the first time, a litany of supposed issues with the bill that would result in “chaos”. The concerns are easily addressed. But, the intent of the delayed and overblown presentations was not to have the concerns addressed and good law created. Rather, the concerns were presented for the first time in committee in order to bury the bill in fear, uncertainty and doubt.

No doubt, the concerns will be addressed, the bill will be passed, and Utah and its citizens will benefit from an improved law. But the lasting take away for me is that I was made aware of the reality of the insurance industry’s concerns about elements of the trial bar engaging in the legislative process in bad faith.

I Didn’t Do It!!!

I haven’t been called into the Legislative Principal’s Office since 2005 when all the contents of Senator Curt Bramble’s office were mysteriously moved to the Senate dias one night in conjunction with the creation of an unofficial website announcing Curt’s aggressive campaign to become both Senate President and House Speaker simultaneously, with plans to capture the Executive branch.

My heart skipped a beat yesterday when Senate Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell sent me a message that Senate President Wayne Niederhauser wanted to talk with me about naming Rep. Jake Anderegg as the House sponsor of SB 100, my non-discrimination legislation. Rep. Anderegg, one of the more vocal opponents of my legislation, had come over to the Senate as soon as the Eagle Forum’s phone tree started blowing up his phone. Ric told me, “I think you went too far this time.”

“Ric,” I responded, “I love to keep things light, but I would NEVER cross this line.”

On my way to the President’s office, I told my intern, “I’m 99% sure I didn’t do this.”

By the time we got to the Senate office, I told my intern, “I think I might have joked about it to someone, but I don’t remember who that was. Oh, crud. If I did this, I’m gonna throw up.”

Fortunately, it was quickly determined that in running a random exercise on the system, which was not intended to be publicly broadcast, staff had simply picked a bill with a round number (SB 100) and the alphabetically first name on the House roster (Rep. Anderegg).

Phew! I didn’t want a House sponsor named before I had a chance to talk with Reps. Christensen and Kennedy about picking it up in the House.

SB 100 (Anti-discrimination Amendments)

Currently, Utah law prohibits workplace and housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy/childbirth, age, national origin, or disability. My SB 100 (Anti-discrimination Amendments) will add protections for sexual orientation/gender identity. People of any race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. still can be fired/evicted; but not because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

In other words, if a person is otherwise qualified, housing and employment decisions should not be based on that person’s sexual orientation/gender identity. This addition to the law is straight-forward and simple. Without hurting anyone, it will protect individuals. It will promote economic development. It is supported by a significant majority of Utahns.

Given the simplicity of the bill and the broad support for the bill, opponents of the bill have resorted to misleading the people. Clear dialogue is needed and welcome. But as part of that clear dialogue, I will call those intentional misstatements what they are: lies.

I will quickly clear up some of the lies. If the Sutherland Institute (Paul Mero), Eagle Forum (Gayle Ruzicka), Fair for All or any other opponent of the bill cares to point to specific provisions in the bill that support their (mis)statements highlighted below, I of course invite them to do so in the comments. (HINT: They won’t point to specific provisions or lines in the bill, because the lies they are spreading aren’t in the bill.).

The bill DOES NOT affect marriage in any way.

The bill DOES NOT require bakers to bake cakes for anyone they don’t want to serve.

The bill DOES NOT require florists to arrange flowers for anyone they don’t want to serve.

The bill DOES NOT change a thing regarding restrooms for school children.

The bill DOES NOT create exemptions that allow for discrimination. (This lie is particularly rich. Switching from arguing that Utah needs to discriminate more, Paul Mero flips to argue that the bill allows too much discrimination by carving out exemptions. All exemptions—like BYU housing, businesses with fewer than 15 employees and property owners with fewer than 4 dwellings—are in existing law and are not changed by my bill.).

Okay. After the lies are sorted out, the bill simply prohibits discrimination in housing/employment based on sexual orientation/gender identity. Utahns support the bill. It is time to pass it.

How Soon Will Obamacare Be Repealed?

I would not be surprised to see Democrats join majorities in the House and Senate voting to repeal Obamacare within the next year. My reasoning is stated below.

Members of Congress are forced to think about their constituents and the next election. If Obamacare puts them in danger with their voters, members of Congress will break with their party and their President. Already we are seeing this, with vulnerable Senate Democrats supporting the Landrieu bill and 39 House Democrats voting for Rep. Upton’s “Keep Your Plan” bill. This movement will accelerate, as the negative aspects of Obamacare (and the electoral reality for Democratic members of Congress) get much worse over the coming year.

The current tremors are being caused by the website, the cancellation of policies that people like, and the loss of doctors that people like. But, the biggest timebomb for Obamacare (sticker shock) hasn’t hit yet. When it does, candidates from both parties—following the will of the People—will aggressively rip into Obamacare.

The President often promised that Obamacare would bend the cost curve downward. Beyond some sound, but minor, changes to Medicare payments (i.e., not paying for hospital-caused infections and redos), the President’s promise, of course, is not true. Math also applies to politics. It is not possible to layer insurance policies with Cadillac protections, allow adults to stay on parents’ plans, and remove all pre-existing condition provisions, and—simultaneously—reduce costs. The “keep your plan” lie damaged the President. The second big lie—reduced costs—will damage him more.

It took quite a storm to convince non-Republicans to take a close look at the actual workings of Obamacare. But, with his credibility already in question, non-Republicans will more willingly scrutinize the President’s cost-related promises.

The pledge in the President’s cost-bending magic trick was that health insurance costs would go down for lots of people (i.e., sicker people). That accomplishment would receive lots of attention, so that the reality of other people (i.e., healthier people) subsidizing that reduction would be lost on the broader audience. However, for 2 reasons, that magic trick now won’t work.

First, the media now will provide closer scrutiny of the magician. Even Ezra Klein and Dana Millbank are now applying some scrutiny to the President. For a magic trick to work, people have to buy the pledge and be diverted in its false direction. But, the media actually will report on the increased rates at this point.

Second, the President is undercutting his own trick by significantly ramping up the pain that non-beneficiaries will feel. To disguise the fact that many people are harmed by Obamacare, there has to be a louder celebration of those helped by Obamacare. We saw this strategy when the Administration (and Ezra, Dana, and other sycophants) first tried to shrug off policy cancellations by saying they only affected a small minority of Americans. But, in that case, the diversion fell flat and the trick was revealed because there was an even smaller group of people who were helped.

By continuing to exempt people from joining the exchanges (i.e., first it was businesses, and now it is individual policyholders), the ratio of expensive v. cheaper policyholders will be skewed toward more expensive policyholders. The subsidy factor will be altered, and the product will be move expensive. Thus, everything that the Administration is doing to mask the current pain will only amplify the pain in the future.

Insurance companies will have to determine rates for 2015. They will announce those rates shortly before the 2014 elections. And the rates—factoring in the pools that have been skewed toward sicker, more expensive policyholders—will jump significantly. The office of every single member of Congress will do this math over the next few months, and will know the sticker-shock storm that is headed their way. They will work to distance themselves from it.

The President will work to bully, cajole, or charm them to stick with Obamacare, but they will know that the ship is sinking and that the President isn’t strong enough to help them. His credibility will be damaged much more than it currently is.

To see how his credibility will continue to sink, look at last week’s press conference. Because his credibility was damaged and he had to do something regarding policy cancellations, the President announced that insurers could continue to offer plans that only the week before his team had deemed “substandard.” Why? As he admitted in answering Major Garrett’s question, the point of the maneuver “is to be able to say to these folks, you know what, the Affordable Care Act is not going to be the reason why insurers have to cancel your plan.”

It wasn’t about a real fix. It was about fixing blame. But, with the magician’s pledge being broken and increased scrutiny being applied, it is apparent to observers that insurance companies can’t redo 3 years of modeling and projections in a week or two. The President only tossed out more disinformation and false hope. So, the media is reluctantly reporting that the ploy to restore credibility actually was just another lie.

Lawmakers get it wrong at times. Believe me, after 13 years in the legislature, I get that. When the public thinks that a law stinks and demands that it be changed, it gets changed. Votes that constituents loathe are not defensible. Especially when things get really bad and the public gets really worked up over an issue, representative democracy moves elected officials, even members of Congress, to do their bidding. Obamacare was sold on several false promises. As the tricks are revealed over this next year, the People will demand that it be repealed, and members of Congress will oblige.

The President would veto a repeal, and I doubt that the Senate would override a veto before 2014. But, if the 2014 elections are a bloodbath for Democrats, the next Congress would vote to repeal Obamacare and might even override a veto.

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