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.

Should Utah Offer Math 1010 Concurrent Enrollment?

My last post proposed that we add incentives for high school students to take college math (Math 1050) in high school. Now, let me throw you a curveball by suggesting that Utah stop providing money for teaching Math 1010 concurrent enrollment in high school.

Here’s the reason. Math 1010 isn’t college math. It is college remedial math. The point of Math 1010 is to remediate math deficiencies before a student can take a math class that actually counts toward a major (e.g., Math 1030, 1040, or 1050). Yes, a student can get college credit for Math 1010 (unlike the 900-level remedial courses which carry no credit), but that credit is an elective and does not satisfy the math requirement for any degree.*

So, why spend extra money to teach remedial math in high school? The answer is that high schools, students, teachers, etc. are excited to teach “college math” in high school. But, again, it is remedial math. Math 3 (the normal high school math class) works fine. Math 1010 is not better.

I propose we stop spending money to teach Math 1010 concurrent enrollment. We’re not a rich state. We need to focus our resources. Any money currently being spent on Math 1010 concurrent enrollment would be better spent elsewhere–like on incentives for high school students to take Math 1050, which actually does count toward degrees.

*Math 1010 does count toward the math requirements for an Associates of Applied  Sciences (AAS). It would be a WONDERFUL thing if more high school students worked on applied technology education degrees their junior/senior years of high school (even to the extend, I would argue, that they focus on a combination of certificate/GED). They could graduate high school (or get their GED) with a certificated skill that would bring down a nice salary, AND they could articulate that certificate experience for a year’s college credit toward an AAS degree–meaning that they are actually ahead of other high school students who took the normal route. To encourage such a pathway–and to focus Math 1010 concurrent enrollment where it actually make sense–it would make sense to preserve Math 1010 concurrent enrollment as a part of a program where a high school student is pursuing a certificate through an Applied Technology College, but ONLY as a part of such programs. To my knowledge, such a program currently only exists at Davis Applied Technology.

A Silver Bullet for Utah’s College Graduation Rates?

Math is the place where higher education aspirations go to die. Math is the single biggest hurdle to college completion in Utah (and in the entire Nation). My idea: get high school students to complete Math 1050 while still in high school. For many students, that will satisfy all the college math they will need for their degree. Viola! That’s it—my big idea, in all its simplicity.

Some facts:

Utah high schools only require 3 years of math. In order to be prepared, though, college-bound students should take 4 years of math in high school.

Utah high schools are increasingly teaching Math 1010 (“college math”), instead of Math 3. But, Math 1010 is remedial and does not count toward any degree. And Math 3 is better.

A majority of Utah college freshman coming straight out of high school require remedial math. (And, I’m not even talking about Math 1010. I’m talking about 900-level courses).

A college student who takes a single remedial course only has a 25% likelihood of completing college.

The 6-year completion rate for Utah colleges is in the low-40s.

The change in missionary age for the LDS church will likely increase the need for remediation (and further decrease the completion rate). Math is a language. Time away from math adversely affects performance.

Why I’m excited about this idea:

Math 1050 is the degree killer. Let’s conquer it in high school through concurrent enrollment.

Utah does an awesome job at providing high school students with the opportunity to take courses that also carry college credit. But, we don’t focus those efforts very well. We treat math the same as any other subject, despite our desperate need for better math performance.

Let’s put a bounty on Math 1050. What incentives does the State need to put in place for high school students to take Math 1050? Currently, 10% of our high school students complete Math 1050. If we bump that number up to 15%, 20%, or 30%, we will see the results in our college completion rates. The State needs to treat Math 1050 concurrent enrollment as more important than any other concurrent enrollment course. Maybe we provide a mini-scholarship as an incentive for completion. Perhaps Utah colleges would be willing to match the dollar amount. (How much of a scholarship would move behavior–maybe $100 from the State plus $100 from a Utah college?).

We need to reward behaviors that are likely to produce success. A small amount of money targeting our biggest obstacle might be money well spent. What do you think?

Shutdown Prevention Plan

Disagreements can lead to improvements. This morning, as I walked in Zion National Park with constituents to talk about ways we can improve our federal government, we came up with a good idea for the future. We’re calling it a Shutdown Prevention Plan or a Shutdown 72-hour Kit.

The federal government—and that includes both political parties—increasingly regards citizens as the enemy. It spies on us. It takes actions against us based solely on our political ideology. And, as we now see, it picks shutdown targets intended to cause maximum harm to us. How might we learn from this current situation, to turn the tide?

The Administration and Congress Creatures and of all stripes want to distance themselves from Shutdown 2013 by pointing at someone else. (They’re really good at that!). Here’s how they can do that political dance, while doing something meaningful. They need to pass a Shutdown Prevention Plan that mandates in the event of a future federal shutdown that (1) the first spending cuts are salaries of Congress and the Administration and (2) that—pursuant to mutually-agreed upon plans—States can run specified programs that otherwise would be shutdown.

The rationale: on Point 1, Congress and the Administration cause the shutdowns, and they are the ones who can end the shutdowns. Rather than point the pain elsewhere (I would argue that they point it elsewhere in vulgarly political ways intended to make citizens suffer as much as possible), they should share in the pain and be the first to feel the pain.

On Point 2, people view Government (with a Big G) as a whole. They don’t really segregate the functions of federal, state, and local sovereigns. They just expect Government to work. If the feds can’t run things, the States should be allowed to step in on a reimbursement basis. States typically are much better than the feds at managing their budget. Thus, States could set aside rainy-day funds to pay for things like National Park operations, if the feds can’t.

To prepare for shutdowns, the feds and states should be authorized to prepare plans. Along with being good management tools, the plans could provide good accountability/transparency measures. For example, the National Park Service and the State of Utah should have plans in place for the State to immediately take over operation of the parks in the event of a shutdown. As part of that plan, the federal government would need to annually report the daily operating costs of each park, so that the State can make sure it has adequate money set aside to assume operations.

I call on Congress to pass such legislation. (I hope Rob Bishop will do it, given his committee assignments and his skills.). I will open a bill to take care of the Utah side of the equation. This seems like responsible governance to me and the constituents I met with this morning.

And, by the way, shutdowns can be part of Congress and the Administration working things out. I’m not saying they shouldn’t ever happen, just that they shouldn’t be left high and dry while they enjoy watching the people suffer.

Any thoughts to improve on this plan?

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