Education Department

The Misguided 'Online Skills Laboratory'

While seeking to make college more affordable and accessible, the Obama administration has launched a worrisome but largely unnoticed assault upon the nation’s publishers and the vibrant market in online learning. The U.S. House has approved a White House-backed provision to provide $500 million to develop free, and “freely available,” online college courses.

The administration is pushing forward with its trademark certitude; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan humbly suggested last week that the administration’s American Graduation Initiative is the 21st century counterpart to Abraham Lincoln’s Morrill Act and to the landmark post-World War II GI Bill.

Duncan is particularly enamored with the $500 million to develop the “Online Skills Laboratory,” in which the federal government will “invite” colleges, publishers and “other institutions” to create online courses for Uncle Sam in a variety of unspecified areas. The feds will then make the courses freely available and encourage institutions of higher education to offer credit for them.

The proposal is both short-sighted and destructive. It’s one thing to encourage providers to develop ”open source” wares and to promote measures that encourage publishers, colleges and universities to reduce costs and save students money. But it’s another thing entirely for the federal government to use taxpayer dollars to provide services that will undercut those offered by self-sustaining private enterprises.

First off, it’s not clear what problem the administration hopes to solve. Online courses already exist and are offered by an array of publishers and public and private institutions. Access to online courses is hardly an issue. Online enrollment grew from 1.6 million students in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007, when the figure equaled more than 20 percent of total enrollment at all U.S. degree-granting institutions. U.S. News and World Report reports that nearly 1,000 higher education institutions provide distance learning. For-profit online providers reported that online enrollment was up more than 25 percent from summer 2008 to 2009.

More than half a dozen major textbook publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, W.W. Norton & Co., and John Wiley & Sons, as well as hundreds of smaller providers, develop and distribute online educational content. To take one example, Pearson’s “MyMathLab” is a self-paced customizable online course that the University of Alabama uses to teach online math to more than 10,000 students a year. Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, says that new course development is not a “terribly high need,” and “I’d rather see more of the money go into scholarships for online learning than reinventing courses that have already been invented.”

Now, I’m as skeptical of big publishing as most, and make no claims for the quality of any particular product. But the point is that exactly the kinds of online courses and materials that Duncan and the House are calling for already exist. If Duncan’s claim is that somehow these same providers or new providers will deliver a better-quality product when hired by Uncle Sam, he needs to make that case.

Further, if there is such urgency to act, it is hard to understand why the administration wants to launch a federally directed effort to develop new materials rather than find ways to leverage those that exist.

What is it that federal dollars will buy that isn’t already available? As Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers, has noted, “State-of-the-art, market tested and validated educational materials are already available and in use by millions of students at virtually every public and private college campus in America…. Why spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the government to attempt to replicate products that already exist?” Sure, Allen is an interested party here, but that doesn’t make the observation any less true.

If the administration is concerned about cost, cost-cutting new providers like StraighterLine illustrate that the efficiencies created by new technologies and delivery systems are already allowing some providers to start offering dramatically cheaper instruction.

Today, the chokepoint is often not the lack of existing online courses or materials but the fact that colleges and universities offer them at prices that approximate those charged to students enrolled in more costly traditional instruction. Of course, this stickiness in price has been due to credentialing and regulatory practices that impede the emergence of low-cost entrants; state-funded institutions that use new e-learning students to cross-subsidize other units; and proprietary operators that have happily responded to this cozy arrangement by competing on convenience rather than price.

Rather than addressing the anti-competitive arrangements and cross-subsidies that have led colleges to profiteer at the expense of students, the administration is pushing to spend half a billion dollars to procure online courses that will be offered free of charge to all comers, both in the U.S. and overseas. The proposal would hide true program costs from both student and taxpayer.

This is sensible only if one assumes that federal contracting and oversight ensure better outcomes than market transactions. But this is the same administration that explains that the “public option” is desirable in health care precisely because it believes in market competition. Moreover, if experience with online education during the past decade is any guide, there is little reason to believe that colleges and universities would actually pass cost savings produced by taxpayer-funded courses on to students.

The measure also manages to raise concerns about academic freedom and stifling critical research and development.

Federal law has long buttressed academic freedom and intellectual pluralism by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from exercising control over “curriculum, program of instruction … text books, or other educational materials by any educational institution.” The administration would suddenly have the department funding the creation and dissemination of entire courses. Once the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a freely available course financed with taxpayer funds, it will be difficult for all but the most expensive or distinctive institutions or providers to justify paying for an alternative offering. For the huge swath of the curriculum represented by general and introductory courses, it is not a stretch to imagine that federally-sponsored courses would become a de facto national college curriculum.

As for R&D and market innovation, Duncan’s proposal is a profoundly short-term solution. If the federal government started freely offering large swaths of cell phone service, it would be difficult for providers to retain customers. The result would be the gradual erosion of the market place and reduced investment in new products or services. Short-term savings would be gained at the cost of gutting the sector’s ability to keep innovating and improving.

The administration and Congress might want to think twice about undercutting publishing and computer software when the copyright sector, which employs more than five million people, is already wrestling with intellectual piracy and declining print sales.

For those who think that the U.S. Department of Education can develop instructional programs and identify promising innovations and opportunities more effectively and efficiently than the messy market place, the “Online Skills Laboratory” must sound like a swell idea. For those who believe that functioning markets generally yield better outcomes than state-directed enterprises, it is a very troubling development.

Even as his administration has become the majority shareholder in General Motors, appointed a “pay czar” to oversee compensation at the nation’s major banks, and endorsed a “public option” to ensure “competition” in a health care market already populated by more than 2,000 insurers, President Obama has taken pains to explain that he is acting reluctantly and only under duress -- and that, as he told Fortune magazine last year, he continues to be the same “pro-market guy … I always have been.”

The president explained at the time, “I still believe that the business of America is business. But what I also think is that with all that power … comes some responsibilities -- to not game the system, to not oppose increased transparency in the market place, to not oppose fiscally prudent measures to balance our budget.” If the president meant what he said, it is hard to fathom why his administration is moving to undermine productive enterprises, obscure price mechanisms, and spending a half-billion dollars to replicate existing products.

If the president is a “pro-market guy,” this would be a good time to show it. Does he really want to add chief of the national “Online Skills Laboratory” to his list of burdens?

Author/s: 
Frederick M. Hess
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Giving the Community a College

I have just begun my 47th year teaching physics at the college level, and although my entire career was spent at four year colleges, I did some part time teaching at two community colleges as well. I don't claim to be an expert, but I did learn that the community colleges have many students who are motivated, bright and far more mature than they were at an earlier attempt at college.

The institutions have other students as well. People looking for a convenient way to take a course or two, and a large contingent of individuals who are seeking a career. Seemingly, the mindset of government has settled on this group as representing the raison d'etre of the community college system and the conversation is centered around terms like training, career, Labor Department partnership and employment and earnings outcomes.

Somehow a vast enterprise that many had hoped would serve as an alternative path toward a college degree, with all the learning outcomes that the degree used to stand for, was subsumed in a process for providing jobs. The question we must ask then, particularly about community colleges, but also about many strongly career oriented colleges, is: Are we misleading our students? Are we prematurely sending them on a path to become workers instead of leaders? Craftsmen and middle level managers, but not creators, visionaries, risk takers?

Not that there is anything wrong with the former outcomes. Most of us -- even some who bear the lofty title of professor -- are really not much more than journeymen trying to do an honest and effective job. But these are outcomes that are determined by circumstances, by the economy, by fortune, by need.

They should not be goals set by a postsecondary institution, let alone by a government. The goals of a community college, like the goals of a college, should be to contribute to the transformation of the individual, to sharpen his/her thinking skills, to expose students to a wealth of ideas, and to create the lifelong learner who is an active participant in the intellectual life of society, even as s/he is engaged in a more prosaic career.

College should be sending a message of internal growth that creates the confidence to deal with a rapidly changing world, to know, to understand, to explore, and to think. Interestingly, these factors are essential ingredients in career success as well. Rare is the individual who will spend his/her career in the subject area for which s/he was originally trained. Change is everywhere, incessant and demanding. The nursing graduate who cannot continually adapt to methods, new techniques, and to new equipment is probably obsolete on the day s/he graduated. The same is true for the laboratory technician, the pharmacist, the business person, and the counselor.

Yes, we must have career preparation. People do need jobs and they need entry level skills. More, the potential for a job is a powerful motivating factor. But students must also be prepared for the challenges of change, the new demands of an evolving society, and the new environment which both limited resources and the accelerating scientific discoveries are creating.

The people teaching at community colleges and at career oriented four year schools are as fully qualified as many of the people teaching at research universities, and the fundamental reservoir of talent, of ideas, of a love of learning is as intense and as broad in a community college environment as anywhere else. There is so much more to the community college than what is appropriate for alignment with the Department of Labor, as useful as such tie-ins may be.

The intellectual discourse, and the leadership emanating from the Department of Education, should focus first and foremost on education. Our young people must continually hear the importance of learning, not for any ulterior purpose, but for itself. Just as law schools teach law, while review courses prepare lawyers, the mission of postsecondary entities should be to educate, and only as a secondary goal to prepare for careers.

Author/s: 
Bernard Fryshman
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.

Institutional Interests, Statewide Concerns

Good public policy for higher education is more than the sum total of individual college and university interests and aspirations. That statement has particular salience for state responsibilities in the present situation, in which some states have been cutting back on funding for public institutions. As the state share of institutional revenue declines, the competition between institutions becomes ever more ferocious.

Without a state capacity for analysis and planning, this competition brings on a Darwinian struggle in which the more politically connected and savvy institutions win, even though there may be a better case for others.

Florida is a poster child for the chaos that results from a weak or nonexistent state level capacity. The 10 senior institutions and the community colleges in Florida are in constant competition for the small crumbs of state appropriations remaining after prisons, Medicaid, and other mandatory programs get theirs. I mention Florida because it is now my home state, and it is sad to see the chaos that results from the absence of a capacity to look at the needs of the state and to hold institutions accountable for results including improved graduation rates, access for low income and minority students and the contribution of colleges and universities to economic growth.

This tension is now being played out at the federal level. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, and the Senate is considering similar legislation. The bill contains many important provisions for existing programs and some new ones. One of the new ones -- The College Access and Completion Fund -- would provide significant funding for higher education reform through state governments.

Predictably, the American Council on Education and several other associations have joined forces to oppose channeling the money through the states. These associations represent colleges and universities, so it is understandable that they would prefer the funds to go directly to institutions.

But I would argue that over the long run institutions would be better served by a robust state policy analysis and planning capacity that would try to slow down the “mission creep” by which regional institutions aspire inappropriately to become research universities, and would promote programs that better assure student access and retention through new and innovative funding approaches.

Institutions fear that a robust statewide capacity to oversee higher education would degenerate into regulatory approaches that would compromise their autonomy and dampen their aspirations to move up in the pecking order where research universities are at the top. There have been instances -- historically, the State University of New York (SUNY) is illustrative -- where an excessively regulatory approach has not been in the interest of either the state or the institutions.

The needed state capacity should not degenerate into regulatory approaches. Rather, institutions should be accountable for results such as graduation rates, improved access, and cost reductions.

Four years ago I was honored to serve as chair of a working group convened by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. That led to the adoption by the center’s Board of Directors of a paper on "The Need for State Policy Leadership," which set forth the need for a statewide capacity to address several critical areas.

First, the states need to have the capacity to produce the quantity, quality and levels of educational attainment needed for economic development and individual opportunity. Secondly, states should reach broad-based agreement on state priorities for improving performance in postsecondary education. Third, there needs to be a statewide capacity with sufficient resources to articulate state goals and the strategies to achieve those goals. Finally, the oversight responsibilities of state and institutional governing boards should be clearly defined and differentiated.

Unfortunately, few states have followed these recommendations, and a number have eliminated or weakened existing agencies. To reiterate, we should not look on this as a regulatory approach but a move to focus on accountability for meeting statewide goals.

I believe that H.R. 3221 is a step in the right direction and I hope that Congress will stay the course, despite the institutions’ push to the contrary.

Author/s: 
Robert H. Atwell
Author's email: 
doug.lederman@insidehighered.com

Robert H. Atwell is president emeritus of the American Council on Education.

The Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee

Administrative costs on college campuses have soared in recent years, contributing in no small measure to the striking rise in student tuition and fees. Higher education leaders themselves are at least partly to blame for this, as their institutions’ focus on rankings and reputation has led them to spend increasing amounts of time and money on non-academic matters. But true to college officials’ complaints, the growing demands of government regulation also contribute significantly to the administrative bloat.

I propose that institutions be much more explicit about the money they spend to meet federal (and, for public colleges, state) demands. They should add a line to their tuition bills called the Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee, so that parents and students (and, yes, politicians) know just how much regulation costs them. Here’s why.

The explosion in administration costs has been striking. With the number of campus administrators, on average, now equaling the number of faculty members (and, perhaps even exceeding it given the increased reliance on adjunct faculty as resources are shifted to from instructional to full-time administrative positions), it appears that the university administration has become the tail that now wags the educational dog.

Some of this administrative burden is clearly self-imposed. When college students became customers, and institutional rankings became focused on reputation, fund raising and selectivity rather than educational opportunity or academic quality, the education of students became almost incidental to the institutional priority of getting onto somebody’s – anybody’s – top 10 list.

Who has time to worry about what happens in the classroom when there are glossy brochures to design and publish, colleagues to woo (it is they who will assess your institutional reputation when ranking season rolls around), earmarks to seek, research infrastructures to build, grants to win, press to avoid, coaches to hire, merchandising opportunities to pursue and donors to cultivate? I sometimes wonder how cheaply we could run colleges and universities if we got rid of capital campaigns, selectivity ratings, federal grant programs, commercial athletic enterprises, and architectural showcasing and went back to the traditional focus on … silly me … teaching and learning.

Oh that’s right, we do know how affordable it is to educate students without all of the extras -- community colleges are the perpetual reminder of how inexpensive it can be to provide a quality education at an affordable price (although these institutions are currently under-resourced given the role they play not only as institutions of higher education, but also as the new high schools).

Rules Require Cost Shifts

Nonetheless, a great deal of administrative burden does flow from the growing list of federal regulations that may ultimately be the greatest barrier to innovation, efficiency and quality in higher education. Many of these regulations force institutions to shift valuable resources away from classroom instruction and into administrative functions and salaries, not to mention electronic data systems, non-instructional facilities, external advisory groups, and teams of consultants and lawyers who help institutions complete the annual ritual of checking boxes and submitting reports to bureaucrats who are unlikely to read them and who will never confirm their accuracy.

In fact, even when regulators know that they are asking institutions to use outdated and faulty methods to collect inaccurate data on a non-representative population of students, they still hold institutions accountable for producing the coveted report. Can you say … IPEDS?

That does not mean that all regulations are bad or wasteful. Truth be told, there are many regulations that are productive, necessary and critical to maintaining our national edge in the area of higher education. The federal regulatory framework does, in many ways, level the playing field among institutions and set minimal standards for financial and instructional integrity among a group of institutions that are increasingly focused on the wrong priorities. And for those institutions engaged in scientific research, some regulations are critical to ensuring student and worker safety and to protecting our national security when sensitive work or materials are involved (although the current regulations are outdated and far too expansive in this regard).

It is true that colleges and universities can opt out of a great number of federal regulations simply by declining to participate in certain federal programs, such as federal student aid programs and federal grant programs. But during this time of shrinking state support and significant endowment losses, can institutions afford to turn away ANY potential source of funding? I sometimes wonder if institutions ever do the math to determine if the benefits of participating in various federal programs -- and especially federal grant programs -- actually exceed the costs.

While some degree of regulation is a good and necessary thing, how do elected officials, and perhaps even more importantly, the voters, know when the regulatory burden is too great? As we see with each reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, when Congress can’t do anything to address the legitimate challenges that students or institutions face, they show the love by authorizing grant programs that will never be funded, expanding existing programs that have never shown positive results, and adding layer upon layer of additional regulations so that they can tell their constituents just how serious they are about solving all of higher education’s problems.

Congress can’t actually guarantee that undergraduates will have access to the Nobel-winning faculty featured on the glossy college brochures, and they can’t force an institution to offer enough sections of required courses so that all students can graduate in four years, but they sure can force institutions to tabulate more data and report on more things. Whether or not the data are meaningful or the reports are useful is not terribly important. One wonders, however, if for the cost of writing yet another report, the institution could have hired another professor to teach freshman composition.

Sure, it sounds good for an elected official to say that he or she is going to hold an institution “accountable” for instructional quality, or campus safety, or cost containment, but what if the regulatory framework intended to improve a legitimate problem only makes it worse? For example, what if regulations aimed at increasing retention rates serve only to provide the sort of perverse incentives that further erode institutional quality? After all, the unintended consequence of our past efforts to increase high school completion rates is that we essentially made the high school diploma meaningless, and yet we still can’t give the thing away to 20% of the population.

Or what if regulations intended to control escalating college costs serve only to make it more expensive to operate – and, therefore, attend – an institution of higher education? What if regulations intended to increase the quality of classroom instruction do nothing more than shift precious resources away from the classroom and over to the administration building?

The problem with our current regulatory system is that voters do not have access to the sort of information that would allow them to evaluate the true efficacy or the actual cost of the regulations created or imposed by the officials they elect (no, elected officials don’t write the regulations, but it is they who write the laws that require, and set the specifications by which agencies promulgate and enforce regulations). I’ll bet that the average student or parent has no idea just how many federal regulations apply to institutions of higher education, or how the compliance burden contributes to soaring costs.

Elected officials of both parties have realized the polling benefits associated with castigating higher education leaders about rising tuition costs, but do the voters understand that each time Congress passes a law, they contribute significantly to those rising college costs? In the absence of good information, voters seem to think that doing something is better than doing nothing, especially when they are misled into believing that someone other than them will pay the cost (as if regulatory costs are ever absorbed by producers and not passed along to consumers).

Calculating, Not Complaining

In order to provide students and voters with the information they need to make informed decisions, it is imperative that colleges and universities provide clear information about the true costs of these regulations to the people who ultimately foot the bill -- the students, their parents, and the taxpayers.

Instead of just complaining about regulatory burden, colleges and universities should take the time to calculate actual cost of compliance -- including the cost of personnel, information systems, specialized facilities, and programmatic changes that are required to meet regulatory standards -- and then disclose this information to students and the public on the institution’s homepage as well as on each student’s bill.

Moreover, instead of burying compliance costs in the overall tuition rate, I urge institutions to start billing students separately for their portion of the compliance costs through a line-item Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee. Utilities have used this sort of billing practice for years, and perhaps it is time that colleges and universities follow the lead to inform students of just how much the federal government shares in creating, rather than solving, the problem of rising college costs.

Then, when new regulations require the institution to hire more staff or purchase new technology, the students will understand the direct connection between the cost of attendance and increased regulatory burden. Not only will this allow academic leaders to place the cost-increase blame squarely on the shoulders of the responsible parties, but it will also provide students and the public with the information they need to engage more effectively in the democratic process.

Conversely, the data may reveal that regulatory burden contributes only minimally to rising college costs, in which case we know to start looking harder for the real problem.

Regulations clearly have associated benefits as well as costs, but there is generally scant information about the cost side of the equation and an overabundance of promises on the benefits side. It is my guess that once students and the public have access to accurate information, they may be willing to forfeit a few of those “government assurances” in order to be able to afford the opportunity to attend college in the first place.

And with a paring down of regulations to those that are truly important, institutions may be better positioned to comply more fully while at the same time allowing the dog to, once again, wag its tail.

Author/s: 
Diane Auer Jones
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Diane Auer Jones is president and CEO of the Washington Campus and former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

Reconsider the Credit Hour

The agenda for change before U.S. higher education is already very long. But with its recent reports on three regional accrediting agencies, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Education has moved the definition of the credit hour closer to the top than I had ever imagined.

If the community procrastinates and the out-of-date Carnegie Unit becomes the default definition applied by the department, accrediting agencies and the institutions and programs they accredit will experience greater upset and confusion than they expect or want.

Based on my experience in higher education, I know that for decades faculties assigned credit hours according to a fairly complex although unwritten matrix. But perhaps I received the wrong introduction to the collegiate credit hour as long ago as 1962.

That year Lewis & Clark College, my alma mater, ran a breathtaking experiment. With several other freshman colleagues, I spent my first collegiate semester in Japan. I took four three-credit courses, two of which were completely independent study and two of which involved about six weeks of face-to-face instruction. I took exams in the latter two and turned in lengthy papers in all except Japanese language.

I could not discern any mathematical formula based on seat time and/or study time that made these each three-credit courses. Nor did it bother me that the actual workload for each three-credit course seemed different. I assumed the faculties of record, as well as the L&C faculty as a whole, must have agreed to the assignment of credit hours. Looking back on that experience, I can also testify that had time on task alone been the measure of learning, I probably deserved four credits each in a couple of those courses.

The “flexibility” of the credit hour continued throughout my collegiate career. In finishing my undergraduate studies, I had a three-credit honor’s thesis course that had no structured time commitments. It prepared me for graduate school where, after finishing a sequence of courses, I registered faithfully each semester for credit-bearing “independent” courses for my doctoral research. I assumed that everyone in the academy understood that the use of credit hours to measure student learning often was not tied to seat time or study time.

My decade as a classroom instructor essentially confirmed that understanding. During it I experienced my share of faculty squabbles over losses of a class day -- and the contact hours it represented -- to such things as post-Thanksgiving Fridays and campus-wide days devoted to the discussions of the issue of the moment. Differences among faculty opinions most often were ironed out in curriculum committees and faculty senates. Sometimes contact hours figured into those debates; sometimes other faculty expectations of student activity counted more heavily. But most faculties seemed to have a basic understanding of how to assign credits.

As I moved from campus to campus in the 1970s, I saw that this understanding apparently carried across institutional boundaries. I moved from institutions with 15-week semesters to others with 10-week semesters. I created courses for the four- to six-week courses in a “4-1-4” or a “4-4-1” academic calendar, and once I taught summer school sessions on a six-week calendar. Calendars shifted, but allocation of credit hours, at least to me, appeared to follow some well-understood “industry standards” related to mastery of course content and only loosely tied to the contact hours of a Carnegie Unit.

The fact is that professional judgment by the faculty long ago supplanted seat and study time in the determination of award of credit hours. Faculties, drawing on education and experience, determine what knowledge and skills a student should master; faculties determine how to break into courses and modules the learning processes necessary for that mastery; and faculties determine the rigor, content, and examination strategies appropriate the award of a specified number of credit hours. Individual members of the faculty might propose the course and the credit it should bear, but most often it is their faculty colleagues who make the final determination through curriculum approval processes. It has proven to be a decent system that provides a way to tally up learning while allowing for considerable flexibility in delivering education and evaluating learning.

Colleges and universities that serve adult learners by recognizing achieved learning through portfolio evaluations or ACE credit equivalency determinations or CLEP testing have for decades unbundled credit hours from a rigid formula of seat time and study time. Colleges and universities that have integrated work-study and community service into their credit-bearing courses have as well. In making these important educational pathways work, expert judgments by faculties determine the award of credit hours, either by assigning those hours directly or accepting them in transfer.

I think back on the times that credit hours influenced accreditation actions when I was with the Higher Learning Commission. To be sure, truncation of a standard academic calendar most often triggered concern. Frequently, however, the key issues had less to do with time on task than rigor of expected learning. Inevitably, expert judgment of faculty rather than contact/study hours informed the decision about the appropriateness of the challenged credit award. Those evaluation team members pored over course syllabuses, evaluated the rigor of the assigned work and study, talked with teaching faculty and students, and sometimes reviewed samples of student work. In some cases they concluded that the award of credit was pretty much in line with industry standards; sometimes they proposed that the accrediting agency require that an institution rework its internal systems for determining the award of credit; and sometimes they found the disconnect between achieved learning and assigned credit to be so out of whack that they recommended denial or withdrawal of accreditation.

The Office of the Inspector General prefers auditable measures for performance. It reads the Higher Education Act with its multiple references to credit hours to demand such measures. It appears to propose that the Carnegie Unit is a pretty good place to start. It has little patience with the difficulty of translating professional judgment into some readily auditable matrix. Considering how little that OIG really understands about higher education, I was only a little surprised by how much weight that office placed on such a weak reed.

I was surprised by how quickly voices from the academy and the department proposed that educational quality should, indeed, probably be linked to the Carnegie Unit. A yardstick based on seat time and supposedly related study time to measure collegiate learning is just the wrong tool.

Years ago others wiser than I said it was time to find a new way to measure achieved learning. That advice was prompted not by the time-on-task mentality of the OIG but instead by growing discontent over the lack of dependable transfer of credits from one college to another. Credit hours in too many transfer debates become separated from the actual learning achieved by the student. Faculties in receiving institutions are more likely to question the fit of the curriculum represented by the credits than they are to question the award of the credit hours themselves. Frequently when credits transfer, they just don’t count toward the degree. But the transfer issue has not gained enough traction to bring about a community-wide review of the credit hour.

The current OIG challenge ought to be sand under the spinning wheels of the higher education community on this matter. If the inspector general decides that when it comes to credit hours the law requires something more measurable than professional judgment and if the department agrees, then instead of retreating to the old time-on-task formulas, the higher education community must hold up for review and major revision the credit hour system of measuring learning. The community has too much experience in assigning credit hours to very different learning experiences to try to return to artificial formulas based on contact and study hours.

Clearly no one is particularly interested in having the Department of Education lead this important exercise. Thanks to the much-vaunted decentralization of higher education in the United States, leadership for the endeavor is difficult to identify easily. But a dozen leaders from higher education associations, accrediting agencies, SHEEOs, faculty organizations, and interested foundations must find a way to create a process as important to higher education in this century as the National Education Association and Carnegie Foundation efforts were to the last century. After all, the Carnegie Unit and the credit hour resulted from that seminal work.

With the Carnegie Unit hanging around as the weighty fallback in these resurrected discussions of the credit hour, we must move with dispatch to recast this academic measurement to fit contemporary higher education and the learning achieved by students in it.

Author/s: 
Steven D. Crow
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Steven D. Crow is CEO of S.D.Crow & Co., which consults on accreditation and other issues, and former president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Higher Education's Big Lie

The notion that education, particularly a college degree, is the key to career success is a particularly American idea. It is what the sociologists W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson have called "the education gospel," a national ethos of hard work in school paying off and of equal opportunity for all. Politicians of every stripe have addressed unemployment by advising the unemployed to take individual responsibility for their futures by learning new skills and by reinventing themselves for a global economy where opportunity will materialize for those with the right credentials.

And workers have responded to the call. As The New York Times reported recently, there are now more students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education than ever before. Today, women attend college in record numbers, and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003, the number of African American, Hispanic, and other minorities enrolled in college reached the highest levels in history.

This all seems like very good news. With millions more students attending college, it makes sense to ask whether their degrees will pay off.

First of all, it is debatable whether a majority of future job openings will require a college degree. While the economist Tony Carnevale argues that jobs that require some college education will help lead a slow and painful recovery from the current recession, The New York Times reports that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most job growth in the next decade will be in labor markets where a bachelor's degree is not necessary. Furthermore, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically in recent years. Conflicting claims about the economic value of a degree along with skyrocketing tuition raise a question about whether college is a good investment for all students, especially those low-income students who can least afford to spend money and years on a higher education venture that may not produce rewards.

Secondly, the issue of college payoff becomes even more complicated when we consider that many students who begin college will not complete degrees. While the U.S. leads the world in college attendance, it is ranked near the bottom in the number of students who actually graduate. In fact, college access, which is touted as a symbol of our meritocratic ideals, leads to a degree for only about half of all students who enroll. Completion rates are even lower for first-generation collegians and people of color. According to education researcher Peter Sacks, the chance that a low-income child will earn a bachelor's degree is no higher today than it was in 1970, a grave contradiction in the meritocratic narrative of the education gospel.

In fact, as the sociologist Annette Lareau has shown in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, the qualities that lead to academic success are not linked to college access, effort, or intelligence, but to accidents of birth. For the most part, the children of affluent parents attend the best colleges and get the best jobs. Opening the doors of higher education has not altered this basic arrangement. Still, the myth persists that, to get ahead in life, the first thing you ought to do is write a tuition check.

These days it is more likely that a student's first tuition bill will be paid with money from a loan. What looks like an investment in the future, however, can often turn into an economic disaster. For example, let me tell you about Valerie, an immigrant from Haiti, who had always dreamed of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. After high school in Harlem, Valerie spent six years at a private, nonprofit, open-door college in New York City accumulating credits for a psychology degree that she finally completed in 2006.

One year after graduation, the only job she could find was working as a teacher's aide (a position that did not require a bachelor's) for $14,000 per year. She also had to work as a salesperson in a clothing store to make ends meet. This might not have been so bad except that, after years of student loans, Valerie owed almost $60,000, a sum she could never hope to repay. After returning to the same college to earn a M.A. degree, Valerie found a job as a social worker earning a $33,000 annual salary. While this was a big step up from her teacher's aide job, Valerie was still unable to meet her financial obligations, and she had begun to question whether her six-year investment of time and money had been worth it. "Is this my American dream? Am I living it now?" she wondered.

There are many students like Valerie who have been led to believe that higher education is the key to a better life. We can all point to success stories in which nontraditional collegians achieve a sense of purpose and satisfaction in the life of the mind, earn degrees, and find jobs worthy of their tremendous effort and intelligence. But there is a pervasive silence in academe about the tarnished hopes and debt loads of many other students who do not complete degrees. In 2009, Public Agenda reported that most students who leave college list economic concerns as the number one reason they did not graduate. Many smart, dedicated students who want to go to college simply cannot afford to do so. And, as Valerie's case makes clear, even those students who do graduate may not find great demand for their skills at the end of a college-to-work road paved with debt.

Student loans like the ones that financed Valerie's education are the most burdensome to nontraditional collegians, especially working-class students and people of color. These students are disproportionately enrolled in institutions that do not look anything like the colleges of popular imagination in which full-time students live on residential campuses, party on fraternity row, and attend football games.

The dire situation on many campuses has been painfully documented in Inside Higher Ed by Wick Sloane, who has studied the realities of academic life for students at a two-year college in Boston. These students are commuters who sleep in their cars and attend classes in the evenings after working all day in low-wage jobs. They take their fear, stress, and economic anxiety into overcrowded classes taught mostly by underpaid, part-time teachers while "federal tax policies . . . subsidize Ivy League and other wealthy-college students by at least $20,000 per student." These conditions suggest that underfunded colleges do a disservice to poor and minority students.

This is a position much at odds with the official designation of two-year colleges as democratic ports of entry to the middle class.

Don’t get me wrong. Many two-year colleges and open-door institutions have wonderful programs run by committed faculty and administrators who have the best interests of students in mind. Yet the Herculean efforts of these educators do not change the fact that many nonselective colleges serve the same function: they keep disaffected unemployed and low-income people out of the labor market by warehousing them in college classrooms where students pay handsomely for an education that may not serve their economic interests.

Making this argument is difficult because it sounds like I am discouraging low-income and minority students from going to college. This could not be further from the truth.

Rather, I am proposing that those of us working in academe begin to dismantle the myth that higher education can facilitate social mobility on a mass scale. In fact, the opposite is true. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, "the average effect of education at all levels is to reinforce rather than compensate for the differences associated with family background and the many home-based advantages and disadvantages that children and adolescents bring with them into the classroom." This is a shattering indictment of the education gospel. Dismantling this myth means being honest with ourselves and with our students about the role of higher education in reproducing class inequality across generations.

Such honesty also means acknowledging that mass access to college does not and cannot provide upward mobility to the vast majority of students who seek it. Access to higher education can only be one part of what must become a broad social movement to redress income inequality that is higher than it has been since the 1920s. College graduates, like Valerie, should be able to earn a living wage.

But we shouldn't stop there. As the Economic Policy Institute researcher Richard Rothstein writes, "It is certainly possible for retail salespersons, fast-food workers, and home health care aides to earn middle-class incomes, but this won't happen because these workers got postsecondary training." Rather, it will be because they have "much stronger minimum-wage and labor-union protections, [and] economic security with good health care."

Class is not a result of merit or effort or hard work paying off. It is largely a legacy transferred between generations. No matter how many college degrees are distributed, we still tolerate a system that doles out limited rewards to all but a privileged few. In this climate, the pursuit of elusive degrees more often functions as a distraction from what really provides security to families and children: good jobs at fair wages, robust unions, affordable access to health care and transportation, and a sound, affordable education for everyone, regardless of background.

These are all factors unacknowledged in the push to convince people that that, if they can't find a job, they should take sole responsibility for their fate, sign up for that first student loan, and get their pencils ready.

Author/s: 
Ann Larson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Ann Larson is recent graduate of the Ph.D. program in English (composition and rhetoric) at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is a writing fellow at CUNY's Hunter College.

Missing the Point

The for-profit college industry is taking fire from all directions because a substantial number of for-profit colleges offer aggressively marketed programs of little value in the job market, leaving individuals unable to repay their debts and saddling taxpayers with the default burden. Much of the bad press is deserved, but the atmosphere of scandal and abuse detracts from a larger point: We have failed to adequately connect college and careers. The current abuses are but the worst-case examples of this failure.

This failure has broader implications because a postsecondary credential has become the prerequisite for middle class earnings, but there are enormous discrepancies in earnings returns between different credentials. Sometimes, a particular certificate is worth more than a particular bachelor’s degree. For example, 27 percent of people with licenses and certificates earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient does. This information is not intuitive, but it is available, and prospective students should have access to it to understand what they’re getting.

Like it or not, postsecondary education is already almost entirely occupational. All certificates and occupational associate degrees are intended to have labor market value. Academic associate degrees have minimal return unless they lead to a bachelor’s. Only 3 percent of bachelor’s degrees are liberal arts, general studies, and humanities degrees -- the remaining 97 percent have an occupational focus. (Add in English, philosophy, religion, and cultural and ethnic studies and you're up to 8 percent.) Moreover, for most students, liberal arts degrees are preparation for graduate and professional degrees, virtually all of which are intended to prepare students for careers.

The current dust-up shouldn’t be about for-profit colleges being all bad, nor about public colleges being off the hook. Rather, we should attempt to use data to find out which colleges are performing for their students.

The current scandal has arisen because of bad information. Slick subway ads and glossy brochures will not suffice to provide potential students weighing their options with accurate career advice. There is a real alternative to late-night infomercials that promise undeliverable outcomes. In fact, the detailed elements of such a system already exist -- including unemployment insurance wage records, transcript and program data, job openings data, and detailed information on occupational competencies.

It’s just a matter of putting them together effectively -- some states have already built the rudiments of such systems -- and making the information publicly available and in online, user-friendly formats.

To build this data system, wage record data would have to be tied to transcript data. Wage record data, which is actual wages at the individual level as reported by an employer, has been around since the late 1930s and is used to verify eligibility for unemployment insurance. These records are held at the state level by employment services agencies, and are also given to the federal government every three months. Transcript data is not currently collected by any federal agency, but is available in varying degrees in all but five states. Eleven states have already linked their transcript and wage record data, and are able to track earnings returns to postsecondary programs. Only seven states can link transcript and wage record data for programs at proprietary schools. This system is still nascent, but has enormous potential to help students evaluate their options, as well as inform institutions in planning new programs and evaluating existing ones.

Building a user-friendly interface is the next step, if we wish for this information to be useful for consumers. Imagine being able, with a few clicks and keystrokes, to explore various careers, find out how many jobs are currently available in the field, how many there are likely to be over the next several years in your area, what education and training programs exist in your local area and online, what they cost, what financial aid is available, and what the average salaries are for graduates of each program. Such a system would empower individuals to choose careers that would truly benefit them, and encourage institutions to offer programs that would prepare them for the jobs that will actually exist.

Such an information system would not eliminate, but would reduce, the future need for intrusive federal oversight or expensive additional state-level regulation. Further, such information systems that connect postsecondary programs with labor markets represent a savings to the taxpayer, improving efficiency in matching programs to careers and curbing the enormous cost of student loan default.

Educators and others may worry that tying curriculums to careers may subjugate education to economics. We clearly need to aspire to a pragmatic balance between postsecondary education’s growing economic role and its traditional cultural and political independence from economic forces. While it is important that we not lose sight of the non-economic benefits of education, the economic role of postsecondary education -- especially in preparing American youth for work and helping adults stay abreast of economic change -- is also central to the educator’s broader mission to cultivate thoughtful individuals.

The inescapable reality is that ours is a society based on work. Those who are not equipped with the skills and credentials necessary to get, and keep, good jobs are denied full social inclusion and tend to drop out of the mainstream culture, polity, and economy. In the worst cases, they are drawn into alternative cultures, political movements, and economic activities that are a threat to mainstream American life.

The current abuses are a wake-up call -- they signal the disenfranchisement of students who are denied access to the middle class and full social inclusion because they lack information on what kind of education can get them there.

Author/s: 
Anthony P. Carnevale and Michelle Melton
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Economy, and Michelle Melton and Laura Meyer are research associates there.

Re-sorting Responsibilities

The current student financial aid system and the existing process for assuring quality in higher education share a common problem: key stakeholders in both are either being asked or are seeking to do things they are not capable of doing well. Many of the changes suggested in recent higher education debates would worsen this mismatch of function and responsibility. American higher education does need to be reformed in key ways -- but these changes should focus instead on making sure each group of stakeholders is capable of doing what it is being asked to do.

What is wrong with the current structure? In short, federal and state governments, accrediting agencies, and institutions are being asked to do important tasks without having the requisite skills, resources, and -- often -- legal authority to do them. By the same token, the traditional role of faculty in judging quality is being largely ignored. Parents and students are also required to provide a set of information that often requires estimates and guesses that are not easily made, all at risk of federal penalty if not done correctly.

Federal and state governments are increasingly being asked -- or are themselves seeking -- to assess the quality of higher education. According to proposals now under discussion, federal and state governments would become more involved in issues such as measuring learning outcomes and regulating credit hours. These proposals seem largely to ignore the traditional role of faculty in judging whether and what students have learned, and the responsibility of institutions in establishing credit hours.

To the extent any of these proposals become reality, there would be a tremendous shift in the relationship between government and higher education in this country, as federal and state governments have not typically involved themselves in academic matters. This would also make American higher education more like primary and secondary education, where state and local governments are much more involved than teachers in setting standards for testing and curricular matters. We think moving higher education in the direction of K-12 education would represent a terrible misstep.

Further, President Obama has set a goal to increase graduation and attainment rates very rapidly in this country, much faster than what historical trends suggest is feasible. At the same time, the administration is proposing to require institutions that provide short-term training to collect information on how many of their graduates have jobs and to punish schools whose graduates are unable to find jobs in the fields for which they are trained. They also propose to penalize or eliminate federal aid eligibility for students attending schools where too few graduates repay their loans. While these initial rules would be limited to non-degree programs, it is hard to imagine -- if they prove successful -- why they would not be applied to all of postsecondary education in the future.

While undesirable lending practices certainly should be curbed, an approach based on punitive actions that restrict access while requiring difficult data collection is unlikely to succeed. Further initiatives are needed that deal with chronic predatory practices while preserving and enhancing access in a way that is administratively practical. But to require institutions at any level to collect employment and income data about their graduates is to give them a task that they have not been responsible for in the past and for which they have little skill or resources to accomplish in a reasonable way.

And, one might add, how are job placements to be measured? If a student trains in science and finds a job selling insurance, is that to be counted as success or failure? Will this requirement encourage higher education institutions to become more vocationally oriented than they are already? Will there be a negative impact on general education, innovation and creativity? As a practical matter, are institutions in high-unemployment Detroit to be held to the same standards as schools in the high-employment Washington, D.C., area? Making schools responsible for their job placement rates is likely to result in fewer disadvantaged students enrolling and thus a drop in their participation rate.

Federally recognized accreditors, in addition to reviewing the academic and administrative capacities of institutions before granting accreditation, are also required to review the financial condition of institutions as laid out in Title IV of the Higher Education Act. They therefore must determine whether the institutions are complying with the bewildering complexity of federal student aid regulations. While the accreditors do their best to meet these obligations, they are not well-structured to do any of this financial or administrative review. The system might well benefit from the federal government turning instead to licensed auditors for this work on a contracted basis.

Colleges and universities in the current system are regularly asked to police student aid applications and then required to modify financial aid based on these audits. But without legal access to applicants’ financial records, they must rely on the accuracy and authenticity of student/family submissions, as the IRS will not share individual filings and the institutions lack subpoena authority. The current aid structure also provides little or no incentive for institutions to keep their costs down – if anything, it adds to these costs through stiff administrative requirements. As a result, the aid system does little to encourage institutions to produce the desired results of increasing the participation and attainment rates of low-income students while protecting student interests.

Students and parents are required to fill out the complicated FAFSA and supplemental forms that require data that have already been submitted as part of the federal income tax process. They are further required to answer a difficult set of questions about their assets and liabilities that are not part of the tax filing process. How can student aid officers then be expected to verify the information they receive from parents or students? Moreover, borrowers who qualify for income contingent repayment plans they are required to resubmit their income information because the Internal Revenue Service has been unwilling to supply that information to lenders or other note holders who must arrange these alternatives repayment plans.

Rethinking the Roles

These responsibilities must be re-sorted if the effectiveness of the system is to be improved. To do this, what is needed is a new compact among the key stakeholders in which each is asked to do what it is capable of doing without being asked to stretch well beyond its capabilities. This new compact might look something like this:

Accreditors would no longer be required to review the financial strength of institutions as part of the accreditation process. This would free them up to focus their resources on reviewing institutional academic and administrative capabilities. The federal government instead would rely on contracted auditors as well as its own compliance procedures that define the financial health of institutions. By not having to do financial reviews, accrediting agencies could play a key role in the development of new ways to access institutional performance, such as the qualifications frameworks that many countries in Europe and elsewhere use to clarify what is expected from graduates of secondary and tertiary levels of education and training. There are many approaches to framework-building, and it would be useful to institutions and their constituencies if accreditors could experiment with approaches to sharpen internal measures of quality.

The states under this new configuration could take the lead in engaging with institutions and faculty in the process of measuring and improving the quality of higher education. The Irish quality assurance process provides an example of how government and institutional officials in concert with faculty can work effectively to measure quality in programs within institutions. This programmatic evaluation of quality, in turn, could be used to enhance the institutional accreditation process, as accreditors would have these programmatic reviews available to them as they review the institution as a whole. This would also recognize the reality that programs, departments and schools within an institution can vary considerably in their quality, a fact not really recognized in the traditional institution-based accreditation process in this country.

The U.S. Department of Education would take on the primary responsibility for reviewing the financial capability of institutions, replacing accreditors in this regard. The department’s well-developed formula for assessing the viability of an institution should suffice for this purpose. The role of the IRS vis-a-vis higher education would also change. The IRS already is responsible for auditing those families that claim tuition tax credits. That role might be expanded in two ways: One is to provide income tax information to other federal agencies and institutions for use in the calculation of federal student aid eligibility, by allowing students and parents to check off when filing their income tax forms. And the IRS should also be required to provide income information used to calculate eligibility for borrowers repaying on an income-contingent basis.

Institutions, as a general principle, should not be asked to provide information or to collect information that which they cannot realistically provide. This includes doing audits of income tax forms of parents and students applying for student financial aid. It is also not clear that asking for the employment status and/or income of their graduates is a proper allocation of responsibilities. On the other hand, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask institutions to provide more information about their current students; including how many are Pell Grant recipients and how many of them graduate. It also seems fair to assume institutions would more readily provide this information if it were linked to how much performance-based federal funds they received.

All institutions should also be given more responsibility for their students who borrow and who default on their student loans. This increased responsibility could include having institutions pay a fee for each of their students who default and then allowing or encouraging institutions to pay off the loans of some of their students who did not receive adequate training as evidenced by their chronic unemployment. This shift in responsibilities would seem far preferable to the proposed regulation that would require institutions to gather information on the employment status of all their previous students.

As part of the new compact, students and parents should be able to use their income tax submission as a way to apply for student aid. Moreover, for students and parents who do not pay taxes because of their low income, those on welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and EITC should be fully eligible for federal student aid rather than the current practice that reduces their aid because of the receipt of these non-taxable benefits.

In sum, this reordering of responsibilities would lead to more effective functioning of the student financial aid and quality assurance systems. Each stakeholder would be asked or required to perform tasks that they are well-suited to performing. Institutions, parents, and students would not be asked to provide information that they often do not have. Accreditors would be freed up to do reviews of academic and administrative operations of the institutions as well as initiating reforms such as the development of qualifications frameworks. Faculty would be re-engaged in the process of assuring quality and quality improvement in a policy-relevant way.

This is a much prettier and effective picture than the one we face in the current set of debates.

Author/s: 
Arthur M. Hauptman and A. Lee Fritschler
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Arthur M. Hauptman is an independent public policy consultant. A. Lee Fritschler is a professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Sweating Bullets at the GAO

The authors of the Government Accountability Office’s for-profit secret shopper investigation pulled off a statistically impressive feat in August. Let’s set aside for the moment that on Nov. 30, the government watchdog quietly revealed that its influential testimony on for-profit colleges was riddled with errors, with 16 of the 28 findings requiring revisions. More interesting is the fact that all 16 of the errors run in the same direction -- casting for-profits in the worst possible light. The odds of all 16 pointing in the same direction by chance? A cool 1 in 65,536.

Even the most fastidious make the occasional mistake. But the GAO, the $570 million-a- year organization responsible for ensuring that Congress gets clean audits, unbiased accounting, and avowedly objective policy analysis, is expected to adhere to a more scrupulous standard. This makes such a string of errors particularly disconcerting.

In fact, the GAO is constituted precisely to avoid such miscues. Its report-vetting process entails GAO employees who are not involved with the project conducting a sentence-by-sentence review of the draft report, checking the factual foundation for each claim against the appropriate primary source. While the research is compiled and proofed, legislators who requested the investigation may keep in routine contact with the GAO to stay apprised of the inquiry.

The GAO issues hundreds of reports a year, and by most accounts revisions of the kind released two weeks ago are almost unheard of. As a former GAO assistant director who worked at GAO for a decade on issues including higher education explained to us Wednesday, the organization’s rigorous review process leaves little or no room for error.

He said, “[It is] extremely rare for the GAO to issue corrected testimony or reports. In fact, in my 10 years that I was there, I never once saw that happen.” He went on to say, “It is stunning to me, given [the GAO] process, how this many errors could have happened. It raises a lot of questions as to the pressure the GAO was under. . . . They must be sweating bullets over at GAO.”

What kinds of mistakes are we talking about here? The corrections were generally changes in emphasis or wording that altered the complexion of the finding. For instance, the original report claimed that a financial aid officer purposely ignored an undercover applicant’s supposed $250,000 in savings when calculating eligibility for financial aid. What the report neglected to reveal was that the financial aid representative did so “upon request by applicant.” This does not necessarily exonerate the financial aid officer, but it does raise questions about the impetus for the inappropriate behavior.

In another instance, an applicant went from being informed that he or she “could take out the maximum in student loans” despite not actually needing that much (revised) to being told that he or she “should” (original) do so. And in a different scenario, a for-profit official supposedly told an applicant that massage therapists could earn up to $100 an hour -- when the review showed that the official actually said that the applicant could expect to earn up to $30 an hour, a figure that is below the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate of $34 for therapists in California.

The list goes on and on. Each of the GAO’s 16 corrections indicates that the recorded evidence was presented in an inaccurate or incomplete fashion, in every case portraying for-profits in a negative light.

What happened? Our source speculated that the pressure of issuing the report in time for Sen. Tom Harkin’s Aug. 4 committee hearing and in time to support the issuance of the Department of Education “gainful employment” regulations led GAO investigators to be less careful than normal.

The problem is that the “we were in a hurry” defense doesn’t explain why the errors all point in the same direction — one that happens to reflect the policy preferences of the chairman of the Senate HELP committee and of administration appointees at the Department of Education. Lanny Davis, the veteran Clinton hand who has now taken to the barricades for the for-profit providers, told us Wednesday that he thinks there is an obvious distinction between “gross incompetence” and “setting out to deceive” — and that the original GAO report crosses the line. “Given that all 16 of the so-called mistakes portrayed career colleges in a negative light, I believe there is no sliver of possibility that this was not an intentional distortion of the truth by somebody with an agenda or somebody who was pushed into doing it,” Davis argued.

The issue goes beyond incompetence or politically motivated misinformation in a government report; the message of the GAO’s initial publication has been “baked in” to the Harkin hearings and the Department of Education’s rulemaking on gainful employment.

Our GAO source observed that the original report’s finding that all of the investigated providers were up to no good was “woven into the overarching narrative that there are a lot of bad actors out there that have to be dealt with.” Even though the GAO’s revisions were substantial enough to merit a public correction, the narrative has crystallized and been wielded by Harkin and Department officials to press the case for their agendas as recently as this week (see Harkin’s December 14 speech on the Senate floor). Even more troubling, despite finally acknowledging the litany of errors that permeate the report, GAO spokespeople have asserted that “nothing changed with the overall message of the report, and nothing changed with any of our findings."

The bigger question is whether we can be confident that the GAO has caught all of the errors or is being honest with the report’s critics. The former GAO official speculated that the recent corrections could be just the "tip of the iceberg in terms of the mistakes made in the report. It calls into question the entire report because it shows that there were not sufficient quality controls in place for whatever reason.” Complicating things is that the GAO is not subject to Freedom of Information Act Requests, which makes getting to the bottom of things just a bit difficult. (Of course, the Department of Education is subject to FOIA requests, and the advocates for the career college sector have filed suit to obtain the primary source materials.)

Regardless of how this gets sorted out, this affair has crippled efforts to talk honestly about problems that need to be addressed. It is hardly shocking that there are unscrupulous for-profit providers trafficking in misinformation and misusing federal student aid dollars. Every sector, public and private, faces such problems. And the practices of all providers that collect public funds deserve to be scrutinized and monitored. The government has every right to police how its student aid dollars are being spent.

But trampling public confidence in an esteemed federal watchdog helps no one — not the individual students that are being taken advantage of by fly-by-night providers, not the colleges that are acting in good faith, not the bureaucrats charged with regulating the sector, and not the taxpayers who wish to root out corruption in student lending.

Author/s: 
Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly are director of education policy studies and a research fellow in education policy studies, respectively, at the American Enterprise Institute.

Gainful Employment: A Privacy Black Hole?

In an interconnected world, where data collected for one purpose can be easily transferred and used for new, unforeseen purposes, we must be vigilant to protect consumers from uses of their data that do not match their expectations.

Transparency is the cornerstone of the modern privacy regime. An individual has the right to understand what data is being collected about him and to make informed choices about how that data is going to be used.

Last July, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) proposed its “Gainful Employment Rule,” which seeks to establish complex measures for determining whether education programs at proprietary postsecondary education institutions (and vocational programs at nonprofit colleges) lead to gainful employment in a recognized occupation. Under the proposed rule, a program’s eligibility for federal student financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act would be based on meeting certain metrics related to student loan debt. ED recently sent a revised version of this regulation to the Office of Management and Budget, the agency in charge of reviewing regulations before they are made final. The revised rule could be out any day.

One measure that the Education Department proposes to use assesses whether a program’s annual loan payment is either 8 percent or less of the average annual earnings of program completers or 20 percent or less of discretionary income of program completers. These ratios might change in the final rule. In order to calculate average annual earnings and discretionary income, ED proposes that the Social Security Administration (SSA) would take the actual incomes of all students who completed a program and aggregate the students’ incomes into a number that ED would use to make the gainful-employment calculation.

Unfortunately, the proposed Gainful Employment Rule suffers from a fatal privacy flaw: it fails to provide transparency into how the federal government will collect and treat student data required to implement the rule. There is much to be applauded in the department’s effort to address loan debt and employment; the problem is not in these goals but in the methods the ED is planning to use to achieve them.

The first problem with the proposed regulation is that the details of how ED will receive student income data and how this data will be treated have not been resolved. Based on a preliminary agreement between ED and SSA, released by Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue in response to an inquiry by Senator Orrin Hatch, it appears that the Education Department is planning for SSA to provide student income data to ED. However, there are no details as to exactly what additional data SSA will be collecting about students and what technical and administrative safeguards the agency will have in place to protect the increased data collection. ED and SSA must provide transparency into this process. Students and institutions need to know how SSA will handle their data.

Further, in his letter to Senator Hatch, Commissioner Astrue seeks to ease the Senator’s privacy concerns by stating that the data provided by SSA to ED will be “strictly statistical.” However, this raises additional transparency problems as both students and institutions will not have the ability to see how data about them is being used to make decisions that may be detrimental to their interests.

Without understanding what data went into the Education Department’s calculation, institutions and students will simply be informed of ED’s conclusion that they failed to meet a certain threshold and that they will no longer be eligible for federal financial aid. This black box calculation flies in the face of the uniformly accepted privacy principle of transparency.

This lack of transparency would also lead to further data collection by the institutions. As institutions would be unable to obtain the same data that the SSA used to make a calculation, in order to contest an adverse ED decision, an institution would have to provide income data that it has collected about its former students and potentially collect even more information than it had previously collected in order to perform its own income calculations.

In addition to the lack of transparency, the additional data that would be collected and maintained about students raises further privacy and security concerns. By collecting and linking more information about a student, the information the government already holds about a student will become more available should an errant government employee desire to misuse this information or should an unauthorized individual gain access to the data as a result of a data breach.

The consequences of a data breach can be profound – just ask Sony or Epsilon. And the government is not immune to these risks. In 2010, there were 104 reported government/military data breaches according to the Identity Theft Resources Center. Nineteen of these breaches were at federal agencies or military organizations, including the General Services Administration, the Department of the Interior, the Veterans Affairs Department, the State Department, and the IRS.

In short, any Education Department regulation that seeks to collect and use data about students must be fully transparent. Students and institutions must know what additional information is being collected, who is collecting this data, and exactly how the data is being used. This process cannot result in a privacy black hole. Any calculations that impact students and institutions must be done in a way that both protects student privacy while also giving the students and the institutions the ability to review and challenge unjust results.

Author/s: 
Daniel J. Solove
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Daniel J. Solove is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and the founder of TeachPrivacy, a company that helps schools develop a comprehensive privacy program.

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