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Education Secretary Arne Duncan

U.S. Department of Education

BALTIMORE -- American higher education is failing “far too many of our students,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan was scheduled to say Monday, as he calls for colleges to be held more accountable for graduating students with high-quality degrees that lead to good jobs.

In a speech outlining the higher education priorities of the Obama administration as it enters its final 18 months in office, Duncan will say it is time to “go further” than discussions about rising levels of student loan debt. He will urge a shift toward focusing on degree completion and educational quality.

"Student debt is a burden for too many students, but most ultimately repay their loans, and for those who get their degree, college proves an excellent investment," Duncan will say, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “The degree students truly can’t afford is the one they don’t complete, or that employers don’t value.”

Describing the current system of higher education as broken and inefficient, Duncan will call for fundamental changes to how colleges are held accountable. He will say policymakers "must shift incentives at every level to focus on student success, not just access." 

In seeking to reframe higher education discussions around student outcomes rather than student debt, Duncan also directly responded to the momentum that has been building in recent months for debt-free and tuition-free college proposals among some Democratic presidential candidates and liberal advocacy groups.

Although he acknowledged the need to contain costs and to create more “tuition- and debt-free degree options,” Duncan was to say that such policies aimed at drastically reducing student-loan debt should be only one part of improving the nation’s higher education system.

“If we confine the discussion to cost and debt, we will have failed,” Duncan said in his prepared remarks. “Because we will have only found better ways to pay for a system that fails far too many of our students.”

Even as student-loan debt already has become a galvanizing political issue during the 2016 presidential campaign, Duncan was set to call for a new focus on accountability in American higher education. One proposal he will offer in broad terms, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks, is greater risk-sharing for “every part of the system,” citing colleges, states and accreditors.

“Institutions must be held accountable when they get paid by students and taxpayers but fail to deliver a quality education,” he will say. “So should states and accreditors who are responsible to oversee them under the law.”

The speech also was slated to tout several of the administration's policy successes, including its effort to crack down on for-profit colleges with the so-called gainful employment regulations, which went into effect this month.

Duncan’s call for a greater focus on student outcomes in higher education comes only a month after the Obama administration abandoned its plan to produce a college ratings system, which officials had pitched for two years as a way to achieve such accountability.

Rather than grade colleges’ performance as high, low or middling, the administration announced last month it would create a government website that provides consumer information to prospective students and parents.

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