Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate education committee, argued in a speech Thursday for a federal accountability system that would apply to all colleges.
Murphy said there is an "outcomes crisis" in higher education driven by poor graduation rates and high numbers of student loan defaults.
"When I say the federal government has failed students, I mean we have failed students at every type of college -- public, private, for-profit and nonprofit," he said at an event organized by the think tank Third Way.
Senate lawmakers are in the early stages of negotiating a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and accountability could be the sticking point in reaching an agreement.
Senator Lamar Alexander, the GOP chairman of the education committee, has proposed an accountability system that would assess each higher ed program based on its student loan repayment rate. Democrats haven't yet offered their own plan but have emphasized the need for special oversight of for-profit colleges.
Murphy said he wants to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats on accountability. He proposed that all colleges be judged on four measures: graduation rates, loan repayment, whether graduates' loan debt is overly burdensome and the proportion of low-income students who are admitted and graduate.