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Education Secretary Arne Duncan urges a harder line on higher education accountability in a speech at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Michael Stratford

BALTIMORE -- Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s call on Monday for a greater focus on student outcomes at colleges was an effort to pivot away from discussions that he said are focused too narrowly on the burden of student loan debt -- discussions administration officials feel are crowding out the debate over structural flaws in America’s higher education system.

The refocusing of attention on accountability, though, again exposed contentious political fault lines that tend to emerge when the federal government tries to use its hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of leverage to reward and punish colleges and states, as Duncan proposed. (A written transcript of his speech is available here.)

Some of those politics have complicated previous efforts that the Obama administration touted as important accountability measures.

Most notably, Monday’s push to concentrate on holding colleges accountable comes after the administration abandoned its plan to produce a college ratings system amid relentless criticism from many college leaders, mostly at private institutions. President Obama and Education Department officials pitched the ratings system for two years as a tool to breathe new accountability into higher education.

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.

In Monday’s speech on higher education, which was among his most wide-ranging remarks on higher education, Duncan referenced the ratings effort only briefly, describing it as “additional comparative information on outcomes and college value that the administration will make available this summer.”

Yet the speech and its timing appeared to be an attempt to address accountability in the wake of the administration's ill-fated ratings system. Duncan alluded to the political challenges of imposing the accountability he imagines. His remarks took on those whom he portrayed as obstructing that work: states, members of Congress, higher education lobbyists and accreditors.

His assessment of accrediting agencies was particularly scathing, with Duncan referring to them as “the watchdogs that don’t bark.” He cited a recent Wall Street Journal investigation, which found that colleges with graduation rates in the single digits continued to earn accreditors’ approval. He also noted that Corinthian Colleges maintained its accreditation up until the for-profit chain filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

“For many accreditors, student outcomes are way down the priority list,” Duncan said. “The current system of continuous improvement is in desperate need of its own improvement.”

Judith Eaton, president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, an association that advocates for accreditation on behalf of colleges, said that “student learning outcomes are a priority” for accreditors, but that “the issue here is how they are taken into account.”

In light of growing pressure in recent years for accreditors to set higher and clearer standards for colleges, Eaton said her association is now working with accrediting agencies to figure out what type of outcome measures would be appropriate to tie to accreditation.

For example, the group may look at “a range of graduation activity that is acceptable” for an institution to enjoy accreditation, she said, or it may set an expectation about transfer rates that colleges must meet.

A challenge, she said, is changing institutional accreditation so that it is more specifically and explicitly tied to student outcomes while also maintaining accreditors’ role as promoting quality improvement.

“The issue is how do we do both of these things effectively,” she said. “The accreditors don’t want to become compliance cops and do nothing else.”

Unmentioned in Duncan’s speech, though, is the political challenge of closing low-performing institutions -- a challenge his Education Department has navigated in some high-profile cases.

For example, the department played a role in helping City College of San Francisco dig out of a deep hole with its accreditor. Whether right or wrong, some observers believed the feds' involvement was a case of playing political favorites, and that such department intervention would not have happened in the case of a for-profit feud with an accreditor.

Duncan also said Monday that he wanted colleges to be held to higher standards on student outcome measures like loan default rates. But the administration took fire, from Democrats and Republicans alike, last year when it changed the default rate calculations of about 20 colleges, sparing them from the loss of federal aid they otherwise would have faced under the way the rates are typically calculated. The department has yet to name those institutions.

Speaking at the time of that default rate adjustment, Duncan told a conference of leaders from historically black colleges and universities that he was pleased that no institutions from that sector had lost aid eligibility because of default rates.

However, Duncan framed his push to focus on outcomes in higher education as a bipartisan one. He recalled the work of one of his Republican predecessors, former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who made higher education accountability a key theme of her tenure.

The speech, which comes as Congress is gearing up to rewrite the Higher Education Act, was in some ways an appeal to the Republican-controlled Congress.

Some of his proposals, such as risk sharing for colleges, echo ideas put forth by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican who chairs the Senate's education committee.

Still, if Duncan’s vision of enhancing accountability for higher education involves attaching more strings and requirements to the federal funding that flows to colleges, that’s likely to clash with Alexander’s approach to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

Alexander has said that his top priority in rewriting the law is to reduce and streamline the federal regulations colleges and students face.

Duncan’s speech was notable to some observers because he spoke -- even if briefly -- of the importance of the liberal arts. Many advocates for the liberal arts have been disappointed over the years that speeches from the Obama administration have generally ignored those disciplines, suggesting that an emphasis on job training is more important. This was most evident when President Obama last year made a quip questioning the value of art history, even if he soon apologized. And administration members haven’t spent much time talking about the value of the liberal arts.

On Monday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Duncan said explicitly that the administration’s goal of promoting new models of higher education did not imply that any option -- including residential liberal arts colleges -- should disappear.

“The liberal arts must remain strong,” he said. “The nation needs campuses where professors aspire to become top-flight teachers and leading researchers look for the next big discovery to help humanity.”

Duncan did criticize some liberal arts colleges and research universities for, he said, building their “brands on exclusivity.” But he then quickly went on to praise Franklin & Marshall and Vassar Colleges for steps they have taken to diversify their student bodies and to welcome more low-income students.

Including liberal arts colleges when administration officials are name checking institutions hasn’t always been the norm. But Vassar and F&M were included Monday among institutions such as Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University, which the administration regularly praises.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which includes many liberal arts colleges, said that throughout much of the Obama administration, speeches about efforts to help low-income students or to make it easier for families to afford college have been “almost exclusively” about colleges from other sectors. He said that many liberal arts college leaders have found this “annoying,” in part because they think it has created incorrect impressions about their institutions.

He called Duncan’s comments on the liberal arts “refreshing.”

Paul Fain and Scott Jaschik contributed reporting to this story.

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