Submitted by Paul Fain on August 17, 2012 - 3:00am
A newly released poll of influential types, including lawmakers, gave President Obama better marks than Mitt Romney on education policy. The poll, which was conducted by Whiteboard Advisors, an education consulting firm, focused mostly on K-12 issues. However, it found that a Romney administration probably would not seek to substantially revise student aid policies. Respondents also said for-profit colleges should be somewhat concerned about a second term for Obama.
The latest ad from President Obama's campaign takes on Mitt Romney on college aid. The ad quotes from a statement in which Romney urged young people to borrow from their parents, and goes on to talk about the benefits of direct lending and the administration's commitment to student aid. The ad also accuses Romney of proposed deep cuts to student aid, although as The Washington Post noted, those possible cuts are based on Romney's overall tax and budget plans, not on specific, current proposals. A Romney spokesman told the Post that "Mitt Romney will encourage innovation and competition to make college more affordable, and his economic policies will give recent graduates the job opportunities they deserve."
The biggest jump in student borrowing (by economic group) between 2007 and 2010 was from families with incomes of $94,535 to $205,355, according to a new Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data. That increase may explain, the article suggested, an increased emphasis on costs when students from families in that group consider colleges.
A New Jersey appeals court ruled that the state illegally denied student aid to a woman who is a U.S. citizen, but whose mother lacks the legal right to reside in the United States, the Associated Press reported. The court ruled that there was no reason to judge the student based on anything but her legal status to be in the United States.
WASHINGTON — The American Council on Education has asked Congress to renew expiring education tax credits past the end of 2012 after some provisions were excluded from a bipartisan bill extending tax credits that expired this year. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, as well as the student loan interest deduction and tax breaks for employer-provided education benefits, are set to expire at the end of 2012, and all were left out of a bill extending other tax breaks for higher education. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, a benefit originally included in the economic stimulus bill that provides up to $2,500 in partially refundable tax credits for tuition, appears to be the most at risk, with some Republicans in both the House and Senate opposing its expansion.
The tax credit is likely to figure in an end-of-year battle over taxes and spending as the prospect of sequestration, or mandatory spending cuts, looms and the Bush-era tax cuts are scheduled to expire. "It is essential that these tax provisions be extended this year to help make higher education accessible for millions of Americans and to ensure our nation will have the educated citizenry the future requires," Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the council, wrote in a letter co-signed by 11 higher education associations.
Only about 0.2 percent of undergraduates finish college with more than $100,000 in student debt, even though that group has received considerable media and public attention, from the Occupy movement to The New York Times, according to a new analysis. (Among graduate and professional students, about 6 percent graduate with six-figure debt.) The study, by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.org, finds that most of the undergraduate borrowers attended colleges that cost more than $30,000 per year, and the majority -- about three-quarters -- attended private nonprofit colleges. Kantrowitz's analysis is based on data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Students majoring in architecture, theology and history were more likely than those in other majors to graduate with high debt. Nearly one-third of students borrowing more than $100,000 came from families whose income was at least $100,000 per year.
Most for-profits operating in California have been deemed ineligible to participate in Cal Grants, the state's generous need-based financial aid program. The California Student Aid Commission on Tuesday released a list of 154 ineligible institutions or branch campuses, 137 of which are for-profits, including the University of Phoenix. The rest are mostly small, private religious institutions. The program's rules were tightened to save money amid California's budget crisis, and were drafted in such a way that they were aimed specifically at for-profits. For example, they apply only to colleges where more than 40 percent of students take out loans. That effectively exempts community colleges, which don't charge enough in tuition for federal loans to be a major issue.
The American taxpayer has a huge stake in higher education accreditation. In order to access some of the $160 billion in federal student aid dollars, colleges and universities must be approved by a recognized regional or national accrediting body. In the absence of an alternative, the accreditation process has come to serve as the federal government’s primary quality control mechanism in higher education. Yet this process is largely hidden from public view and not well-understood.
That’s why the recent announcement from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of the country’s six regional higher education accrediting bodies, that it will regularly make all of its accreditation reports available to the public is so important.
To those familiar with financial markets, product safety, environmental protection or a host of other sectors where public reporting is a given, it may seem puzzling that such an announcement is considered innovative. But when it comes to our colleges and universities, WASC’s initiative is downright revolutionary. That WASC is taking this worthwhile step ought to be applauded. That this step is only now taking place tells you everything you need to know about the sorry state of quality control and transparency in higher education.
Despite the high stakes for taxpayers, accreditation is opaque -- groups of faculty and administrators recruited from other colleges and universities visit the campus, assess its financial and academic health, and provide a report on whether the college should maintain its accreditation. Typically, this happens every five years. The colleges themselves must take time to engage in “self-study” and prepare reams of documentation — sometimes down to the number of volumes in the library. All of this is expensive: the provost of Princeton recently told a Department of Education panel that its most recent accreditation cost the university about $1 million.
What do we get for all of that time and money? Not much, at least in terms of quality control: few colleges ever lose their accreditation, and schools with low graduation rates, financial issues, or other problems often remain fully accredited. For example, WASC accredits a range of institutions, from elites like Stanford and UCLA, both of which graduate 90 percent or more of their students, to less prominent colleges like California State University, Dominguez Hills; Alliant International University; and San Diego Christian College, where graduation rates for BA-seekers hover around 30 percent. Other institutions on WASC’s roster, including Cogswell Polytechnic College, Vanguard University of Southern California and the California Institute of Integral Studies, have failed recent Department of Education “financial responsibility” audits.
And while accreditors may uncover such areas where institutions need to improve, these details are not routinely made public. Until WASC stepped up, none of the accrediting bodies systematically published the results of its reviews. Instead, most colleges and universities simply announce that they’ve passed another round of accreditation, while the occasional news item vaguely reports on colleges that are “on probation” or “at risk” of losing their accreditation. Otherwise, all accredited schools bear the same seal of approval, whether they have a sterling record of success or a troubled history.
Only in very rare instances do schools lose accreditation. Just this month, WASC rejected the for-profit Ashford University’s bid for renewed accreditation, based largely on what reviewers described as its high dropout rates. And here in the Washington, D.C., area, Southeastern University lost its accreditation in 2009 after a long stretch of probationary periods, threats, and scandal. As Kevin Carey reported in Washington Monthly in 2010, by the time it shuttered, Southeastern had onlysix full-time faculty to teach over thirty degree programs.
As anyone who has ever read an accreditation report can tell you, making these documents public will do little to help prospective students in the near term. You need a higher education glossary and a helping of patience to even begin to decipher the jargon. Even then, the results are often difficult to interpret, and almost impossible to use in a comparative way.
But WASC’s move is rhetorically important for what it signals to the insular, risk-averse, and often defensive culture of higher education. The days of hiding behind accreditation and benefiting from its imprimatur will slowly come to an end. Demands for better information about higher education quality and value -- whether defined in terms of student learning, labor market outcomes, or return on investment -- are growing from the statehouse to the White House.
Colleges, universities, and accrediting bodies that continue to resist this movement will find themselves unable to compete with those that embrace it. And while accreditors will rarely put a college out of business, armies of prospective students equipped with a clearer notion of quality and cost can do just that.
Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Mark Schneider is a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a visiting scholar at AEI.