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If the Biden administration wants to create a list of “low-financial-value” postsecondary programs, it’s going to have to overcome stiff opposition from the higher education lobby, which decried the plan as a slippery slope, problematic and potentially dangerous.
The American Council on Education, the main lobbying group for higher education, said in a letter signed by nearly 25 organizations that it doesn’t think it is possible for the department “to establish a metric or metrics that will fully capture all of the relevant information—both qualitative and quantitative—that would theoretically be used to determine value.”
“These are difficult comments to offer, because we share the department’s desire to help inform students and to shed light on bad actors,” ACE president Ted Mitchell wrote. “But unless the significant data gaps and fundamental flaws can be resolved, moving forward with such a list as a public tool intended for consumer information is likely to do far more harm than good.”
Mitchell served as the department’s under secretary during the Obama-era effort to rate colleges and universities. That plan was scrapped after opposition from higher education groups and others, and the Obama administration released the College Scorecard instead, an online dashboard that offers a wealth of data on colleges and universities.
Now, the Biden administration is trying to finish the job by creating an annual list of “low-value” postsecondary programs. The 30-day comment period for a request for information seeking input on how to put together such a list closed Friday. The department wants to release the first iteration of the list this year.
Broadly, organizations representing nonprofit colleges and universities urged the department to rethink its plans, while for-profit colleges advocated for metrics that would cover all sectors of higher education. Meanwhile, think tanks and education researchers offered suggestions on how exactly the department should determine which programs provide a low financial value to students and taxpayers—debt-to-earnings ratios, program completion rates and earnings above the average high school graduate’s salary were popular recommendations.
Last month, the department released a request for information seeking input on the measures and metrics that should be used to build the list, what data should be collected to assess a program’s nonfinancial value, the structure of the list, and how to share the list once it’s created.
Several comments emphasized that students often choose a college near their home and don’t always know what they want to study during the search. Some researchers and critics also were skeptical that a list would keep students from enrolling in low-value programs without additional protections.
“Publishing a list and drawing public attention will not intervene at the point of impact—the student,” Western Governors University president Scott Pulsipher wrote. “To truly impact the extent to which students and taxpayers are exposed to the negative consequences resulting from low-financial-value programs, as intended, information on value needs to be provided to students before enrollment.”
Department officials have said that institutions on the list will be asked to submit a plan to improve their program’s financial value. Students also might receive a warning before they receive federal financial aid to attend a program on the list, according to a department fact sheet.
Researchers at New America wrote that the department should make the list more consequential.
“As the department is poised to regulate accreditation this fall, we urge the department to include regulatory changes to the recognition process that would mandate an accreditation review of those institutions that have low-financial-value programs,” the New America comment says.
Other commenters, including the Society for American Archaeology, urged the department to take into account nonfinancial measures, echoing a concern raised by some groups that a list of low-value programs would penalize programs because their careers in their respective industries don’t lead to high earnings.
The society and other commenters also warned of unintended consequences.
“Another factor that the ED must carefully consider is the role of the president or provost of institutions where bottom-line strategies are followed,” the archaeologists’ comment says. “Much of the support that departments and programs receive is contingent not only on enrollment but also on the reputation of the department in the minds of the president or provost. Administrations that are uninterested in anthropology or archaeology will not support these programs, and ‘low-value’ ratings from the ED will only exacerbate this situation.”
'Potentially Dangerous Turning Point'
Associations representing colleges and universities generally agree on the need for more reliable data on postsecondary programs and share the department’s concern about unaffordable student debt. But the agreement tends to end there.
The American Council on Education’s comment cited limitations on existing program-level data, discrimination in earnings and employment, and the diversity of postsecondary programs as reasons that “it would be almost impossible to establish criteria that work equally well in evaluating each program.” The organization also was concerned about the general concept that the merits of a postsecondary program could be reduced to its financial return.
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities urged the department to “exercise caution” in its approach to creating a list and expressed concern that the department would eventually ban students from using federal student aid to attend a “low-financial-value” program.
“Federal aid is distributed based on a student’s need, not on the type of institution or program the student attends,” NAICU’s president, Barbara Mistick, wrote. “A warning label for ‘low-financial-value’ programs represents a potentially dangerous turning point in which the federal government begins to actively take a role in directing students on where and what to study.”
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities asked the department to rescind the request for information and scrap its plans to create the list.
“The broad scope of the RFI is akin to doing surgery with a machete, whereas limiting the RFI to for-profits may be the scalpel needed to address the issue,” CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra wrote. “Identifying low-value postsecondary programs in the nonprofit realm would miss the fullness of these institutions’ missions and reduce them to incomplete financial metrics.”
The American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees wrote in their comment that designating programs as having a low financial value was problematic and should be reconsidered.
“The ‘low financial value’ label as proposed by ED will stigmatize programs and leave them prone to misunderstandings by prospective students and the public,” the associations wrote. “It is the type of judgment that is best made by potential students, families, and their academic advisors—not the U.S. Department of Education.”
The department is planning to release new gainful-employment regulations this spring, which would only apply to for-profit institutions and nondegree programs at public and nonprofit institutions and take into account a student’s debt-to-earnings ratio. Several commenters said that a strong gainful-employment rule will be a key step in protecting students.
Because gainful employment only applies to some programs, “greater transparency at the program level and across sectors and credential types is also necessary,” researchers at Third Way, a center-left think tank, wrote in their comment.
Third Way and others recommended that the department use the gainful-employment metrics as the basis for identifying the low-financial-value programs.
“Having two different sets of standards to assess economic value for the same program is illogical and would create unnecessary confusion for students, institutions, and taxpayers,” wrote Jason Altmire, president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, an organization representing for-profit institutions.
CECU and others advocated for the department to establish universal measures that would be applied equally to all programs from all sectors of higher education. CECU also said the department should factor in program-level completion rates, funding from state and local governments, the impact of student demographics and geography as well as an economic mobility indicator that would measure how a student’s income changed after completing a program.
Elizabeth S. Marcuse, president of Lim College, a for-profit fashion school in Manhattan, and the Association of Private Colleges wrote in comments that they see “no rational reason” for the department to pursue a new gainful-employment rule and the low-value list simultaneously.
“The department’s policy goal is the same for each regime, just the tactics differ: to establish a quality metric disclosed to the public that will reduce enrollment in [federal student aid] programs that do not, in the department’s view, add value.”
Marcuse, who is the vice chairperson of the Association of Private Colleges’ Board of Trustees, added that the value measure should account for small cohort sizes and value not reflected simply in debt or earnings. She recommended that the department use the College Scorecard to house all the data, including the low-value metric.
She and others suggested that the department exclude “certain social good programs”, such as those that prepare teachers or social workers, from the list because earnings in those industries can be disproportionately low.
“Shaming these programs would result in [a] lower supply of trained workers for critically important fields,” she wrote. “Higher education has impacts beyond earnings: physical health, mental health, civic involvement, expanding tax base, tolerance of diversity of ideas, and other areas of social good that need to be taken into consideration for certain programs.”
Marcuse said a list like the one the department is proposing to craft will affect a program’s enrollment and finances.
“The department should initiate negotiated rulemaking on the low financial value disclosure regime to better understand stakeholder impacts and available options, rather than create legal uncertainty,” she wrote.