House Passes Bill to Repeal Credit Hour, State Authorization

The House of Representatives voted 303-114 Tuesday to repeal the Education Department's credit hour and state authorization regulations, with 69 Democrats joining the all of the chamber's Republicans to back the bill. Higher education groups cheered the House's actions, but the next step for the measure is unclear.

While the bill might be able to attract enough Democratic support in the Senate to become law, the Obama administration has said it strongly opposes any attempt to repeal the regulations, and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has waged a high-profile fight against for-profit colleges. The state authorization and credit hour rules apply to nonprofit, public and for-profit institutions, but Democrats who voted against the measure characterized it as an effort to erode consumer protections.

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Colleges Increasingly Dependent on Tuition, U.S. Study Shows

Public and private colleges alike saw a steady rise in the proportion of revenues they derived from tuition from 1999 to 2009, the Government Accountability Office said in a report Monday. The report, which examined financial and other data provided by institutions, found that net tuition and fees rose to 22 from 16 percent of total revenue at public colleges and universities, and to 40 from 29 percent at private nonprofit institutions.

House to vote on repealing credit hour, state authorization

The Obama administration opposes a bill to repeal newly enacted rules on the credit hour and state approval, but how Democrats will vote today is unclear.

Obama Urges Governors to "Invest More in Education" (and Rebuts Santorum)

WASHINGTON -- President Obama continues to make college affordability a key theme of his domestic policy agenda, but to tailor his message to his audience of the moment. On Monday, addressing the members of the National Governors Association, the president reiterated his views -- highlighted in last month's State of the Union address -- that higher education is increasingly important for individual Americans and for the country's economic future, and that rising prices threaten to put a postsecondary education out of reach for many. But while his speeches to campus leaders have focused on colleges' responsibility to contain their own costs and the prices they charge students (and federal carrots and sticks he might use to elicit that behavior), he used his appearance before the governors to reiterate his belief that states share significant culpability for driving up tuition prices.

"Nothing more clearly signals what you value as a state than the decisions you make about where to invest," President Obama said in urging the governors to "invest more in education." Describing the college affordability problem as a "shared responsibility," he said the administration has sought to do its part by significantly upping federal spending on Pell Grants and other student financial aid. But "[w]e can't just keep on, at the federal level, subsidizing skyrocketing tuition. If tuition is going up faster than inflation -- faster, actually, than health care costs -- then no matter how much we subsidize it, sooner or later we are going to run out of money.  So everybody else is going to have to do their part as well."

The president repeated that he had put colleges and universities "on notice" that "if they are not taking some concrete steps to prevent tuition from going up, then federal funding from taxpayers is going to go down." But the states have to do their part by "making higher education a higher priority in your budgets," the president said. "Over two-thirds of students attend public colleges and universities where, traditionally, tuition has been affordable because of state investments.... But more than 40 states have cut funding for higher education over the past year. And this is just the peak of what has been a long-term trend in reduced state support for higher education. And state budget cuts have been among the largest factor in tuition hikes at public colleges over the past decade. So my administration can do more, Congress can do more, colleges have to do more. But unless all of you also do more, this problem will not get solved."

Robert L. Moran, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said his members were heartened by the president's remarks. They signal, he said, that "just as he's keeping our feet to the fire" on controlling public colleges' costs and prices, "he's not backing off the message that he needs to keep the fire on the feet of the state legislators and governors, too, because if state support goes down, tuition goes up." The president has comparatively little sway over state policies or priorities, Moran said, so his rhetoric and use of the bully pulpit matters.

(Side note: While he did so subtly, the president appeared to directly rebut criticism that a potential opponent in November, Rick Santorum, aimed at Obama over the weekend. Santorum called the president a "snob" for, he said, suggesting that all Americans should go to college, saying that there are "good, decent men and women" proud that their skills were "not taught by some liberal college professor." Without identifying the former Republican senator, Obama told the governors that "[w]hen I speak about higher education, we’re not just talking about a four-year degree. We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment. And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school.")

Study: Loan and scholarship recipients give less to alma mater

Study of one college's alumni shows those who received loans or scholarships donate less than do others.

Vote Expected on Credit Hour Bill

A bill that would overturn two provisions of the Education Department's "program integrity" rules -- the federal definition of a credit hour, and the requirement that colleges obtain authorization from every state in which they operate -- is headed for a vote in the House of Representatives this week. The Rules Committee will consider H.R. 2117, the "Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act," tonight, and a full vote is expected later in the week.

The bill had bipartisan support when the Committee on Education and the Workforce voted on it in July, and has been supported by several higher education associations, including the American Council on Education and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. A related Senate measure, S. 1297, was introduced in June but has not yet been considered by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Support from Senate Democrats would be crucial for the measure to gain Congressional passage; it is not clear how aggressively the Obama administration would push to defeat the measure, or whether President Obama would veto it.

New Reporting Requirements Proposed for Teacher Ed

A draft of new regulations proposed as part of the Education Department's negotiated rule making process for teacher preparation programs would require states to report data on such programs' employment outcomes (for their newly graduated teachers) and student learning outcomes (for those teachers' students). The draft regulations, which will be discussed and modified at the rule making panel's meeting next week, also would require states to make "meaningful differentiations in teacher preparation program performance," based in large part on learning outcomes for their graduates' students. So far, the regulations leave the definition of a "high quality teacher preparation program," a key point in the panel's discussions, to individual states to determine.

Audit Challenges Oversight of Foreign Medical Schools

The U.S. Education Department's federal student aid office has fallen short in several ways of ensuring that foreign medical schools are meeting federal requirements that their students pass licensing exams, meaning that there is no assurance that student loan funds were "disbursed only to students who attended schools that were eligible to participate in the Federal student loan programs, the department's inspector general said in an audit last month. The audit found that the federal student aid office was "not timely in taking appropriate actions against schools identified as having failed to submit the required pass rate data or meet the pass rate threshold, inconsistent in its methodology for calculating pass rates, and accepted from some foreign medical schools pass rate data that were not complete or were not in the required format."

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Essay praises federal legislation to gauge college programs' labor market returns

On February 9, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, introduced a bill on the Senate floor entitled the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.” The bill gained bipartisan and bicameral support when it was introduced in the House by Duncan Hunter (a Republican from California and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education). 

Hunter and Wyden have been working together to increase the quality of educational data and improve transparency in measures of the success of colleges and universities. This proposed legislation was the product of this work. While its chances of passage are likely low, it is a smart piece of legislation that could help transform our expensive and inefficient system of postsecondary education.

A key provision of the bill would support states in expanding or creating postsecondary student level data systems that include measures of student success in the labor market (including average individual annual earnings by educational program, degree received and educational institution) from all institutions within the state, public and private (nonprofit and for-profit). It presents a much smarter approach to measuring what is called “gainful employment” than the U.S. Department of Education has managed so far.

In 2010, the Department of Education waded into the issue of the labor market returns of college degrees. This foray was tied to proposed regulations that would punish institutions whose students were not earning sufficient income to pay off their student debts. Whatever the merits of the idea, the department set off a firestorm with its regulations and with the quality of the data it released in August of that year.

The proposed regulations would have shut down a large number of the programs run by for-profit institutions plus some community college programs as well (like so much else surrounding the gainful employment debate, the number of programs affected was hotly contested). The department backtracked on the original regulations and last year issued watered down regulations. There was much to dislike about the department’s efforts, but one of the most problematic was putting the regulatory cart before the data horse. In short, the database to support the high-stakes regulations was at best thin and cast doubt on the department’s ability to base any gainful employment regulations on a sound foundation.

The department’s data capacity will be tested again next month, if it can stick to its plan to release new data on the labor market success of students in career-oriented programs. This time around, the Department is using wage data from the Social Security Administration and matching it to student debt data it holds within its Federal Student Aid office.

No one knows how good the matched data will be, and since the Social Security Administration (rightfully) has limited the ability of anyone outside of government to look at the merged dataset -- and since the stakes (although lower than proposed in 2010) are still high -- there will likely be a major dustup when the data are released.

This is why Wyden’s bill is smart: it builds the database first, and puts the linked data into the public sphere without the heavy-handed threat of government closure of programs.

Wyden’s approach gives everyone the opportunity to probe, poke and prod the data to develop a better sense of their limits and their strengths. Regulations can come later, but in the meantime, the availability of these data will allow students and their families to make more informed choices about the likely outcome of their investment of time and money in a given program in a given school. The data will also allow state policy makers to judge the rate of return on their state’s investment of taxpayer monies in different programs.

We can already anticipate some of the responses to this legislation: that we shouldn’t judge colleges on a single number like salaries or the return on investment, that college education is about so much more than simply finding a job, that many of the societal benefits of having an educated population will not be measured, and so on. Of course many of these statements are true.

But the national commitment to higher education is largely about economic development and creating a skilled competitive workforce. Would the Obama administration be pushing its ambitious postsecondary agenda if colleges just taught students to parse Proust? Would students flock to colleges and universities to learn postmodern poststructural critical theory? Students, their families, taxpayers, and government officials need to know the likely returns for investing so much time and so much money in the pursuit of a degree. And the Wyden bill is likely to get this information into the public sphere faster than any other approach we are currently pursuing.

On a more wonky note, the Wyden bill will help force the revision of the nation’s “premiere” data system for collecting information on colleges and universities. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) was a reasonable data collection system in the middle of the last century, but to say it is creaky gives it more than its due.

In a nutshell, IPEDS is based on aggregated data collected for a declining number of postsecondary students (it already covers less than half). IPEDS needs to be replaced with student-level data such as the Wyden bill calls for. Wyden’s bill also makes the states full partners in this new IPEDS model, recognizing their critical role in higher education policy. In doing this, the IPEDS burden will be reduced for a great many institutions that submit both IPEDS and student data to the state.

In 2006, Congress banned the federal government from itself holding such a data system. At just about the same time, it authorized the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the states to create them. Wyden’s bill will have these state systems brought together for a national view of the data, while prohibiting the feds from having access to personally identifiable information. This would improve the payoff of the nation’s investment in these data systems and keep the action at the state level, where it belongs and where, under current legislation, it can actually take place. 

Colleges and universities need to better measure the progress of their students as they work toward their degrees, they need to better measure what their students are actually learning, and they need to better measure how well students are doing in the job market after they graduate. Only then can we increase transparency and improve accountability. Wyden’s bill has many of the pieces of the puzzle right, and if it became the law of the land, it would mark a major step forward in improving postsecondary education.

Mark S. Schneider is vice president for new educational initiatives at the American Institutes for Research.

NCAA Division I Members Back Multiyear Scholarships for Athletes

The colleges in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I voted last week to uphold their ability to award multiyear scholarships to athletes, narrowly rejecting an effort by some of the division's members to block such grants. The multiyear scholarship rule was one of several that the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors approved in a burst of legislative activity last fall aimed at quelling concerns about rule breaking and about the association's treatment of athletes -- and one of two rules that significant numbers of Division I members sought to block because of concerns that they would favor wealthier programs and conflict with how most institutional financial aid is awarded, among other reasons. The NCAA's governance process provides a mechanism in which the division's members can formally vote to override decisions by the Division I board.

Last week's vote on the multiyear scholarship rule would have required a five-eighths majority of Division I members to block it from taking effect. But only 205 of the 330 participating colleges and conferences -- two short of the 207 needed -- opposed the scholarship plan. Twenty-five institutions and leagues did not vote. "I am pleased that student-athletes will continue to benefit from the ability of institutions to offer athletics aid for more than one year," said the NCAA's president, Mark Emmert. "But it's clear that there are significant portions of the membership with legitimate concerns. As we continue to examine implementation of the rule, we want to work with the membership to address those concerns."


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