Bridging the Gap on Accountability

Democrats are talking more about how failures happen across the higher education system, not just at for-profit colleges -- their traditional punching bag. So can they agree with Republicans on new standards for all colleges?

April 25, 2019
 
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Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, has added to calls for broad college accountability.

For-profit colleges have for years been higher education's boogeyman for consumer advocates and many Democrats in Congress. And those lawmakers have repeatedly called for tougher standards in response to the sector's relatively high loan default rates and other poor outcomes.

But Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, suggested this month that his party hasn’t focused enough on failures happening at all colleges -- including public and nonprofit institutions. And he argued that a reauthorized Higher Education Act should add accountability for all colleges that receive federal aid.

“By committing to fix the outcomes crisis across the board for every student, we can frankly bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats,” he said at an event hosted by the think tank Third Way.

Higher education experts have spent years debating the merits and proper design of an accountability system that would encompass the entire higher ed system. But Murphy, who sits on the Senate education committee, adds a prominent voice on the Democratic side to calls for expanding standards for all colleges, a top priority for the committee’s GOP chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

“I’m fascinated by Murphy doing this and working separately from leadership,” said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies issues of college accountability.

Whether his proposal could help spur consensus on one of the major sticking points for a reauthorized Higher Education Act remains to be seen.

Murphy's comments acknowledge the shortcomings of current accountability system, which has produced few consequences for the poorest-performing colleges, and the reality that Alexander and Republicans likely won’t support accountability measures that solely impact for-profits. The sort of broad accountability system Murphy proposed might also face less opposition from colleges that would lose out with a single measure assessing outcomes.

Alexander in February proposed assessing every postsecondary education program based on student loan repayment rates. College lobby groups criticized that framework, saying it would disadvantage institutions that serve high proportions of low-income and minority students, including historically black colleges. They also argued that assessing individual programs could push students away from high-need fields like teaching, because repayment rates in those programs can be relatively low.

Senator Patty Murray, Alexander’s Democratic counterpart, has talked mostly about tougher oversight of for-profit colleges at the federal level. In a speech last month, Murray said a new HEA law should include tougher oversight for large, predatory college chains, citing examples like the collapsed Corinthian Colleges, ITT Tech and Education Corporation of America.

Murphy wants to bridge the partisan gap by creating a system that holds all colleges accountable but uses multiple student outcomes metrics, such as graduation rates, loan repayment, some measure of degree value -- such as earnings -- and enrollment of low-income students.

Failures of the Current System

Most groups with a voice in the college accountability debate acknowledge that the only existing metric that applies to all colleges, the so-called cohort default rate, is largely ineffective. Only a handful of colleges have lost access to federal student aid over the least 10 years as a result of the rule. And the Government Accountability Office has found it is easily gamed by some institutions that have poor outcomes for loan repayment.

Craig Lindwarm, vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the cohort default rate “is completely ineffective at holding the worst-performing institutions accountable.”

Multiple legislative proposals with bipartisan support have sought to tackle college accountability. A bill introduced in 2017 by then senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the New Hampshire Democrat, would have cut off federal aid eligibility for colleges where at least 15 percent of students haven’t begun repaying their loans within three years. And Senator Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat, and Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, also have introduced legislation that would pressure wealthier colleges to enroll more low-income students.

Neither Alexander nor Murphy has offered details about how their plans would work -- for example, what minimum loan repayment rate colleges would be expected to meet, or whether the plans would use a graduated scale or a single “bright-line” standard, where colleges either pass a threshold or fail entirely. Kelchen said it could be difficult to pass a plan that includes such a bright-line system.

While those details would have to be sorted out, observers who are plugged in to negotiations over a new higher ed law said there appears to be real momentum behind adding accountability for all colleges.

“It demonstrates that there’s widespread agreement the cohort default rate is ineffective and furthers the conversation about using repayment rates or other metrics,” said Emily Bouck West, the deputy executive director of Higher Learning Advocates and a former Senate staff member.

James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, said that’s a positive direction for policy makers to be moving. But he said measuring outcomes isn’t a substitute for other traditional methods of monitoring colleges, like the gainful-employment rule.

“It’s exciting to have this new accountability conversation about outcomes,” he said. “But outcomes alone aren’t a substitute for proven methods of gatekeeping and monitoring. I think it would be a mistake to discard the protections we have now.”

APLU and other groups warned that an accountability system that includes multiple outcome measures could quickly become unwieldy. Lindwarm suggested it would be more appropriate to task college accreditors with monitoring results like graduation rates.

“It’s difficult to see how all of these pieces would fit together,” he said of the Murphy proposal.

Reaching agreement on accountability is just one challenge lawmakers on the Senate education committee will face in crafting a reauthorization of the law. They’ll also have to address to what extent legislation should improve college affordability, which Murray identified as a top priority last month. And issues like sexual misconduct on campus and free speech are expected to figure into the debates as well.

Some observers see a debate over new college standards as perhaps the biggest obstacle to passing an HEA law this year. Adding new rules would be a serious shift in federal policy, which would generate serious opposition from colleges with the poorest outcomes. But the kind of plan outlined by Murphy, which attempts to account for the characteristics of various student bodies, could potentially reduce resistance from colleges that serve high numbers of low-income and minority students.

In a letter sent to Alexander and Murray in February, Harry L. Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents public historically black institutions, told the lawmakers that any accountability system should hold colleges accountable for both access and completion.

Any reasonable measure of accountability, he said, "should take into account how schools fare relative to their peer institutions, rather than simply the population at large and how many low-income or first-generation students those institutions serve."

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