‘Time to Go Big’

Unions and education policy groups are pushing for more accountability for institutions, including whether students end up broke.

February 25, 2021
 
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley

When the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers recently launched a campaign to hold the nation’s colleges and universities more accountable for how they treat workers, the groups’ leaders had an ambitious goal in mind.

“It’s time to go big,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the association of professors.

At a time when unions representing faculty and staff are calling out some colleges and universities for laying off workers without dipping more deeply into their budget reserves, or for spending money on things such as renovating a football stadium, the associations are pushing the federal government to impose more strict requirements on colleges and universities that receive federal funds.

Meanwhile, the Institute for College Access and Success, run by James Kvaal until he was nominated last week by President Biden to be the nation’s top official on higher education policy, is also calling for toughening expectations on institutions getting federal dollars.

All colleges and universities now face sanctions if too many of their graduates default on student loans. But the institute says the standard should be higher. Colleges and universities should be held accountable not only when graduates do not pay back their loans, but also if their diplomas do not lead to employment with salaries that provide for at least a minimal standard of living. It’s unclear how far these ideas will go. But the American Federation of Teachers is viewed as having some influence with Biden, for whom it campaigned. First Lady Jill Biden is also a community college professor and a member of another teachers' union, the National Education Association.

“Know this. Joe and I will never forget what you did for us,” Jill Biden told members of the NEA and AFT on a Zoom thank-you call in November.

Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, leading progressives in Congress who were both on the Feb. 10 press call, also endorsed the idea of attaching more strings to institutions receiving federal dollars, including “ensuring job security, equitable pay and sustainable careers for faculty and staff.”

The groups haven’t yet laid out specific proposals. But they are likely to include measures requiring institutions to say how they are going to move more contingent faculty into permanent positions, or avoid laying off more campus service workers, Suzanne Kahn, the managing director of research and policy at the Roosevelt Institute, said in an interview.

The liberal think tank is among those involved in the campaign seeking greater funding and accountability from the nation’s higher education institutions, called A New Deal for Higher Education.

The billions in relief Congress has given colleges and universities through coronavirus relief packages have come “with few strings attached,” Kahn wrote in a recent paper. There’s no question the institutions need the money, she said. But “for higher education, this aid must come with reform.”

The Biden administration and the Democrats who control Congress are expected to crack down on for-profit institutions, which argue that any regulations on them should apply to all institutions. The administration is expected to restore Obama administration regulations on for-profits that the Trump administration had rescinded. The regulations included measures such as barring institutions from getting federal student aid dollars if too many of their graduates earn too little to repay their loans.

“At least in the near term, the focus of the administration will probably be on the worst institutions, those that actively defraud students, and the for-profit sector as a whole,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics for the centrist think tank Third Way.

“There is increasing awareness and realization that the federal government has long focused only on access to higher education and not on the quality of what either students or taxpayers are paying for,” Erickson said. “Instead of only focusing on access, we should be asking, ‘Access to what?’”

The increasing attention on the nation’s student debt problem is also creating pressure on Congress and the administration to act, she said. Even if debt is canceled for those who have loans now, the current higher education system will just mean others in the future will be mired in debt, she said.

Associations representing the nation’s higher education institutions say they are waiting to see what kinds of ideas come out of the administration and Congress. But they think proposals will be coming.

“Speculating about an 'accountability agenda' under the Biden administration is really shooting in the dark -- they have not announced any specific higher education proposals yet nor do they have any Senate-confirmed appointees in place,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

However, he noted that Biden’s proposals to increase higher education spending, including doubling the maximum size of Pell Grants, will come with more expectations.

“Taking any of these steps is meaningless if students are not well served by the institutions that they attend,” he said. “Moreover, it would be foolhardy for the federal government to spend more money on anything without ensuring that adequate and appropriate quality protections for consumers and the public are in place.”

Other lobbyists for colleges and universities acknowledge some nervousness over what proposals could come, after having fought against Obama administration proposals, most notably an idea pushed personally by Obama for the federal government to rank institutions based on factors such as how likely their students were to get a degree, how much they earned after graduating and how well they were able to pay off their loans. After a backlash from the institutions, Obama backed off and instead posted the information on the federal government's online College Scorecard.

Higher education lobbyists and experts like Bob Shireman, director of higher education excellence at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, and formerly deputy under secretary of education in the Obama administration, do not expect the idea to resurface during the Biden administration.

Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, agreed, noting that the idea was predominantly Obama’s and the administration abandoned the idea.

Lobbying groups for higher education institutions said this week they are open to discussing more accountability measures. But even the best-intentioned ideas can cause problems, Flanagan said.

The Education Department earlier this week added information to the College Scorecard to counsel prospective college students about financial aid on its website, StudentAid.gov. But Flanagan said the information on the site, intended to inform people about how much they might make upon graduating compared to how much they’d owe in loans, is linked to wage information based on what graduates make in their first years out of college. That doesn’t reflect how much they’d make later in life, and prospective students looking at the low wages on the scorecard might be discouraged from going to college at all, she said.

Department documents, though, state that the ultimate goal is for the scorecard to give ten years of data, but it now only has salary data by field of study going back to 2014.

One change being advocated by a number of higher education advocacy groups is to change the main mechanism for judging how well colleges and universities are preparing students for life after graduation.

All institutions face being made ineligible to get federal student aid dollars if 30 percent of graduates default on their loans for three consecutive years, or if 40 percent default in any single year.

While the so-called cohort default rate metric has pushed some institutions to do better, the measurement has been subject to abuse. A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office found that colleges, with the help of consulting firms, are steering student borrowers into options like forbearance -- a status that allows students to postpone making loan payments on a temporary basis. That makes institutions’ default rates appear lower.

“Schools have figured out how to game the sole universal measure of terrible borrower outcomes -- the cohort default rate,” six higher education groups -- the Center for American Progress, New America, the Century Foundation, the Institute for College Access and Success, Third Way, and Veterans Education Success -- wrote in a November blog post urging the Biden administration to make a number of reforms.

In a separate report in October, Ben Miller, the then vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, called on colleges to be judged not only on whether their students default on their loans but on a higher standard -- if they are successfully paying down their debt.

“Repayment rates test not only if borrowers avoid default but also if they are actually following their payment plan and staying current,” wrote Miller. He is now in a position to push the idea after being named temporary senior adviser to Sheila Nix, chief of staff to Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s nominee for education secretary.

The Institute for College Access and Success proposed going even further last Thursday.

It noted the default standard should be changed because the Trump administration and now the Biden administration has excused borrowers from making payments during the pandemic. With borrowers escaping going into default, the measure would let bad colleges and universities slide.

In addition to sanctioning colleges if too many students default, the group proposed additional possible measurements to push colleges to make sure not only that students graduate, but are then able to “have a decent standard of living,”  J. Oliver Schak, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview.

Schak laid out several options to define what that means. Colleges could be judged on whether graduates earn enough to have a certain amount left over after making their loan payments. Another option is to see if students earn one and a half times the federal poverty rate, or $19,140 for a single person. A third is whether an institutions’ graduates make at least the roughly $28,000 people earn if they didn’t go to college at all, the report said.

That’s not that much to expect, said Jessica Thompson, TICAS’s associate vice president.

“But it would identify colleges that are consistently leaving students worse off than if they’d never gone there at all,” she said.

The recommendations will likely be familiar to at least one top Education Department official. Kvaal was the group’s president when it made the recommendations last Thursday. The next day, he was nominated by Biden to be the department’s under secretary.

Lobbying groups for colleges and universities did not comment on the idea.

Meanwhile, groups are pushing for accountability measures. Shireman’s Century Foundation has proposed that colleges receive a bonus in federal funding if they meet certain equity benchmarks, like enrolling a certain percentage of lower-income students and students of color.

“Federal policy should incentivize colleges to serve all Americans, not primarily wealthy and white students,” the group said. But institutions that do not meet the benchmarks should be barred from being able to make legacy admissions, the group said.

Lobbyists for colleges and universities are also resistant to the changes being proposed by the teachers' union. “It’s more about labor than accountability,” Flanagan said.

Driving the push, the unions said, is the impulse to prod universities to reprioritize their decision making after a number of disputes over how they are handling the economic fallout of the pandemic, said Rutgers University history professor Jennifer Mittelstadt, co-founder of Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, one of the groups involved in the AFT campaign.

The 19 unions representing Rutgers workers have criticized the university for not dipping more deeply into reserves or allowing workers to go on furlough to prevent the 1,000 layoffs of staff and faculty the university has made during the pandemic.

“It’s inexcusable that they would choose to lay off workers and demand cuts from academic departments when they have the means to prevent this,” Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents full-time faculty and graduate workers, said this week.

The university and the unions have been engaged for months in a fight over the institution’s financial figures. Rutgers spokeswoman Dora Devlin said the university has carried out a slew of cost-cutting measures, including pay cuts for senior administrators. The layoffs came as “services are curtailed on campuses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, eliminating the current need for some positions,” she said.

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