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College Accountability, From the Left

November 3, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The Center for American Progress has impeccable credentials for the Obama era. In the same way that the right-leaning Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute had the attention of the Bush administration, the Center for American Progress, headed by the former Clinton confidante John Podesta, is the think tank for the current White House. Time magazine called the center "Obama's idea factory" after his election last year.

Which makes the center's new white paper on higher education all the more interesting -- and, perhaps, all the more concerning to some college leaders.

The document, "Putting the Customer First in College," calls on the U.S. Education Department to create an Office of Consumer Protection in Higher Education that would (1) pressure colleges to produce significantly better data on how well they serve students, (2) develop a system for making that data available for students to use in choosing a college, and (3) direct students unhappy with their colleges' educational practices to federal, state, or accrediting officials who can help them resolve their complaints.

"In most sectors of our economy, customer focus is paramount, as it should be in education, too," the author, Louis Soares, writes in the paper. "Customer focus could yield a more student-centric system through the development and dissemination of user-friendly 'truth-in-education' information that helps students make 'best-fit' choices regarding which education provider to select based on customer preferences such as: academic quality, price, convenience, learning style, beginning education level and the anticipated return on their investment in education."

He adds: "The Office of Consumer Protection in Higher Education can be a powerful agent for righting [an] imbalance of knowledge and helping students succeed in college and save money to boot."

If that language sounds vaguely familiar, it should -- it echoes ideas inherent in Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which similarly bemoaned the lack of available data to help families and parents decide which institutions would best suit and serve them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Charles Miller, who headed the Spellings panel, largely embraced the paper by Soares, saying (via e-mail) that it "could be a game changer" because of its "focus on the student as a consumer in a regulatory scheme."

"If the academy and its leaders in the associations and institutions react in a hostile way to this idea, or even with their usual delay and obfuscation, it will be a serious and tragic mistake," Miller wrote. "Similar to what happened in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the academy will end up getting pressure for more reports and stricter regulation instead of being active participants in planning and implementing an effective data system."

And also unsurprisingly, officials of several college associations dismissed the need for another federal initiative that would pump yet more data into the public domain and, potentially, add to the information demands on colleges and universities. A solution in search of a problem, several of them suggested.

"I don't think the problem is a lack of information for students -- there is probably too much out there for them to wade through as it is," said Frank Balz, vice president for research and policy analysis at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "And it's hard to see how adding a layer of bureaucracy will improve anything."

Empowering Students

Soares, director of the postsecondary education program at the Center for American Progress, does not shy away from the analogy to the Spellings Commission, though he takes a slightly different approach befitting his background primarily in adult education and work force development.

"From a policy perspective, the idea that for all the public investment we put in higher ed, we're going to add an accountability piece to our traditional emphasis on affordability seems like a natural outgrowth," Soares said in an interview.

While that may seem like an idea that was right at home in the Bush administration, Soares acknowledged, his emphasis fits right in with his center's "progressive" tradition: accountability as a form of consumer advocacy.

"If students are investing in this educational service, how do they know what they’re buying?" he said. This has not historically been a problem for the better off students who apply to selective private colleges and public universities, Soares said; they have U.S. News & World Report, warts and all, and more importantly "social networks and social capital that help them make those choices."

Not so with the vast remainder of students, for whom clearcut information about which community college or for-profit college will give them the best chance of getting a job if they get an engineering degree or participate in an apprenticeship program, for instance, is hard to come by.

It's not that there is a shortage of data, per se, Soares argues. It's that most of the information that the government now collects, and that colleges themselves choose to release, focuses on the affordability and access questions that have traditionally dominated higher education policy making at both the federal and state levels. Producing and sharing reliable information about how students actually fare is much harder to find.

Soares' paper is silent on the question of how better data on student outcomes might be produced, and when asked, he sidesteps a question about whether he favors a national system of student-level academic records that the Spellings Commission advocated for tracking students' performance throughout the education system and into the work force -- and that privacy advocates and private college officials aggressively fought.

But he expresses respect for the argument -- which those groups also made forcefully -- that it would be wrong to try to impose a one-size-fits-all definition of student success on all institutions.

"If you believe that the decentralized way our postsecondary system is set up actually works -- and I generally do -- you have to figure out a way to build a flexible accountability into the system. You want to protect that," he said. While he argues for a central Office of Consumer Protection housed in the Education Department, he suggests that most of its work -- including working with states and regional accreditors to gather and distribute useful data -- would fall to 10 regional "college customer ombudsmen."

"The regional advocate approach is designed to acknowledge that states are going to have ways they deal with this stuff, and to try to introduce customer-centric accountability in a way that preserves decentralization," he added.

While the Center for American Progress's proposal shares with the Spellings Commission a thirst for better and more widely shared data, it also emphasizes a kind of consumer protection against ill treatment of students to which the Bush era panel paid no attention. A major role of the ombudsmen as Soares conceives them, in addition to driving the sharing of data about student outcomes, would be guarding against overly aggressive college marketing tactics, ensuring that students aren't coerced into accepting undesirable forms of financial aid, and helping students who believe they've been misled by their institutions about graduation or job placement rates.

That's the sort of advocacy that consumer groups have long thought was necessary to protect students from some for-profit colleges, an idea that the Obama administration appears to be taking to heart. Soares said that while "we mostly have had that discussion in the context of for-profit schools," he is not aiming to single out those institutions, noting that some institutions of all types have graduation and completion rates that are so low as to raise concern.

Judging from the reactions to Soares' proposal, he appears to have successfully avoided singling out any one sector for scrutiny. Balz from the independent college group wasn't alone in thinking that creating a new federal entity to protect students was unnecessary; Harris N. Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association, too, took issue with the center's premises that students don't have any advocates and that they lack good data about institutions' performance.

"Our institutions, at least, make enormous amounts of information [about student outcomes] available under federal requirements, accreditation requirements, and Federal Trade Commission requirements," Miller said. "I just don’t accept the premise that students don’t have access to that information. I'm just not sure that the problem is as he paints it."

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he was sympathetic to the "very real" problem that Soares and the center were trying to solve: that "we have a gate-keeping system that was designed for the convenience of providers, and that does not adequately protect students and the taxpayers."

But the group's proposed solution, he said in an e-mail message, is far from ideal. While colleges should provide good information to their students, and accreditors and other watchdogs should ensure that the institutions are producing good outcomes for their students, "assigning [these tasks] to an external agency ... won’t fully resolve the problems that they are hoping to address."

 

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