WASHINGTON -- Weeks after the U.S. Education Department issued softened regulations designed to ensure that vocational programs prepare graduates for "gainful employment," House Republicans made abundantly clear Friday that, in their view, the rules had not been eased nearly enough, and that they would continue to oppose them.
The irresistible force of the Cheneyist federal government has met the immovable object of colleges entrenched in their Eisenhower-era way of doing things, or so some commentators on the Department of Education’s recent attempt at negotiated rule making would have it. If that were true, it would be a fairly traditional conflict that could be resolved through standard political channels.
Under those conditions, the service of a critic such as Anne Neal on the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), the department panel that reviews accreditors, would excite little attention. Government and politics are joined at the hip, and Neal has been a visible and effective commentator on important policy issues, from a position roughly congruent with that of Republicans. Fair enough.
But that isn’t the situation. What is really happening is that accrediting bodies, which are not part of any government, are being jammed in between the principals like trapped sheep and beaten from both sides. The feds beat them for not thinking or acting like enforcers. Their collegiate membership beats them for listening to The Idiots In Washington. The Department of Education is using accreditors as a human shield to absorb incoming fire from schools, while simultaneously insisting that the accreditors, not the feds, fight back, with ammunition supplied by the feds themselves.
Sorry, that’s a foul. Can’t do it that way. It’s even inconsistent with the usual habits of the force-based Cheneyist government, which is usually quite willing to simply declare any opposition -- indeed, any discussion -- to be enemy action and begin stomping. Of course, arranging for a third party to be blamed for one’s actions is as old as politics.
Neal has argued that the formal linkage between the feds and accreditors needs to come to an end. She is right. This civil union of the 1950s, so convenient in another era under other conditions, no longer works. Eligibility for federal financial aid should be decoupled from accreditation as soon as possible and determination of eligibility brought inside the Department of Education. The department does it already for foreign schools, albeit badly. The establishment of an eligibility unit inside the department would simplify the situation immensely. If ever a Republican president were to support additional staff for the department, this is where they should go. Democrats could hardly object: adding this function where it belongs would allow government to work more efficiently and colleges to have a much clearer idea of what standards they must meet. A fine bipartisan plan.
The feds are trying in a very crude, clumsy way to transform accreditors into things that they were never intended to be and cannot be effectively: enforcement arms of the federal government. If the federal government wants to impose standards on schools that want federal aid, fine. Standards must be met for most federal aid, and that is as it should be. But the feds should not hide behind a third party in a shotgun wedding, when the bride would rather be anywhere else and the children think their new daddy is made by Frankenstein.
The standards for eligibility for financial aid should be set through a rational, governmental rule-making process that establishes the standards -- just like every other agency does it. Well, I make no claims of rationality for all governmental decisions, but neither can I do so for all policies established by accreditors -- assuming that anyone can figure out what they are.
Various critics of accreditation argue that the process is intrusive, ineffectual, does not help maintain quality and is not worth keeping. That’s a discussion that needs to happen between the colleges and their accreditors, separately from what standards the federal government expects colleges to meet for aid eligibility. I have seen good, bad and useless things emerge from accreditors during my years working in higher education, and the discussion needs to happen. Separately. It is not appropriate to try to answer those questions, which are not federal in nature, in the middle of a tug-of-war between colleges and the feds, by wrapping the rope around the necks of the accreditors in the middle.
There is no reason for accreditors to be attached to the federal government. Allowing this interspecific coitus to continue is simply a recipe for mutant policy offspring that can’t be effective. End it now. It’s time for a shotgun divorce.
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
After a year in which it dominated the headlines, the student loan “scandal” has lost its head of steam. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has largely moved on to other areas of interest. And the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, which have each passed different Sarbanes-Oxley-like versions of legislation to address the issue, have also taken up other matters for now.
But that doesn’t mean that colleges and lenders are out of the woods, as the U.S. Department of Education is just getting started with administrative investigations and enforcement actions that will make the department ground zero on this issue in 2008.
In response to criticism from Cuomo, the Congress, and the General Accountability Office, the department increased its oversight of colleges and lenders during the latter half of 2007. In July, the Federal Student Aid office (FSA) sent letters to 921 colleges whose student-loan volume was almost entirely, if not entirely, with one lender. The letters were intended to remind the colleges of the requirement to provide borrowers a choice of lender. Then, on October 24, FSA sent letters to 55 of those colleges, as well as 23 lenders that held loans with one or more of the originally identified 921 colleges, requesting information and documents that could indicate the existence of improper inducements, in violation of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), and its regulations.
Those 78 colleges and lenders (and perhaps many others) should be prepared for the possibility of an administrative investigation and enforcement action by the department in 2008. Here are four things they can expect:
1. More Adversarial Program Reviews
Based on my personal knowledge of the department’s prior practice, and its current organizational structure, two different divisions that report to the Federal Student Aid Program Compliance office are currently reviewing the responses of the colleges and lenders: (1) the School Eligibility Channel is examining college compliance, and (2) Financial Partners Eligibility & Oversight is examining lender compliance. Although FSA, and not the department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), is conducting the oversight, I expect OIG to be working behind the scenes with FSA to ensure that colleges and lenders are held accountable for regulatory violations.
An examination of colleges by FSA’s School Eligibility Channel typically takes the form of a program review, which is FSA-speak for “investigation.” A program review entails an on-site visit by FSA that generally involves the collection of financial-aid documents and interviews with financial-aid administrators. Colleges receive notice that a program review will be initiated and are provided the opportunity to respond to a preliminary program review report before FSA issues a “final program review determination” letter. Colleges can expect the School Eligibility Channel to be reluctant to accept their explanations for business arrangements with lenders. There will be findings of regulatory non-compliance in the program review letters.
Lenders have historically had a much more cooperative relationship with Financial Partners Eligibility & Oversight than colleges have had with the School Eligibility Channel. Financial Partners once boasted that, as its name suggests, it works in partnership with lenders to promote best practices and to provide technical assistance. However, that collaborative approach was criticized in September 2006 by the OIG as one that “emphasized partnership over compliance.” As a result, lenders should expect a more adversarial relationship with Financial Partners, which, like the School Eligibility Channel, will conduct program reviews and make findings of regulatory non-compliance.
2. Application of an Uncertain Legal Standard
What types of agreements between colleges and lenders transgress the current prohibition against inducements? Only FSA knows. It is very difficult to discern the legal standard that FSA will apply.
The department’s longstanding interpretation of the anti-inducement provisions is that a violation requires there to have been a quid pro quo, i.e., something given for something taken. In other words, there must be a payment or other inducement provided in exchange for FFEL loan applications. That interpretation finds support within the department as far back as 18 years ago and remained the department’s position through this past summer.
In a February 1989 Dear Colleague Letter, the department described several types of business-development activities between colleges and lenders that would be deemed permissible so long as they were intended as a form of advertising or as a creation of good will, “rather than as a quid pro quo for loan referrals.” Secretary Margaret Spellings actually attached that guidance to her August 9, 2007 letter to the higher-education community urging colleges and lenders to act in the best interests of students and parents. Indeed, three months earlier, in May, the Secretary testified to a congressional committee that a payment can only constitute an improper inducement where there is a quid pro quo.
The department, however, published new regulations on November 1, 2007 that changed its interpretation of the HEA’s anti-inducement provisions. The regulations, which become effective on July 1, 2008, eliminate the requirement of a quid pro quo and replace it with a standard that will prohibit virtually all business-development activities between colleges and lenders, including efforts to create good will. The department made this change of interpretation by giving itself the authority to limit, suspend or terminate a lender from the FFEL Program if the lender is unable to present sufficient evidence that payments or services provided to a college were provided “for a reason unrelated to securing applications for FFEL loans or securing FFEL loan volume.”
In the preamble to the regulations, the department signaled that the new regulatory language is intended to prohibit virtually any payment that is provided merely for the purpose of securing FFEL loans. This would prohibit virtually all payments because FFEL lenders are, after all, in the business of securing FFEL loans. With the quid pro quo requirement eliminated, nearly all business-development and good-will activities will now be prohibited.
FSA should, of course, wait until the effective date of the new regulations before it applies this new interpretation of the anti-inducement provisions. And, even then, FSA should apply the new interpretation only to payments offered on or after that date or else risk holding colleges and lenders liable for activities that were not illegal at the time they were conducted. But FSA’s intentions are unclear, considering that it seems to already be looking to the new regulations to support its probe of agreements between lenders and affiliates of colleges.
3. Probes Into Lender Agreements With College Affiliates
Based on FSA’s letters, lenders can expect FSA to examine not only agreements between lenders and colleges, but also those between lenders and affiliates of colleges. By "affiliates of colleges," FSA undoubtedly means entities such as alumni organizations. In July 2007, as part of a highly-publicized settlement agreement with Cuomo, Nelnet agreed to stop paying alumni associations for exclusive referrals of their consolidated loans. However, agreements with alumni organizations and other college affiliates are not yet covered by the federal anti-inducement statutes and regulations.
The HEA’s anti-inducement provisions prohibit lenders from making payments “to institutions of higher education or individuals.” Although the current regulations use the slightly different phrase “to any school or other party” to describe the scope of covered recipients, once that phrase is read in the context of the HEA language (as it must be so read), the term “other party” in the regulations can only mean “individuals.” It cannot be construed to mean or to include college affiliates because such entities are neither “institutions of higher education” nor “individuals.” So FSA seems to be probing lender agreements with some entities that are not currently covered by the regulations.
The new regulations will, however, add “school-affiliated organizations” as an additional class of covered recipients and, therefore, in a matter of six months, give FSA authority in this area. The term “school-affiliated organization,” which was defined broadly by the Department, covers any organization that is directly or indirectly related to a college, regardless of whether it is within the college’s structure and control. It includes alumni organizations, foundations, athletic organizations, and social, academic, and professional organizations. But because the HEA’s anti-inducement provisions for lenders only cover payments to “institutions of higher education or individuals,” the new regulatory prohibition against payments to “school-affiliated organizations” appears to go beyond the HEA.
4. More Limitation, Suspension and Termination Proceedings
Colleges that are found in regulatory non-compliance generally receive an FPRD letter that assesses a liability against the college, or they receive a notice imposing an administrative fine. In the past, FSA initiated limitation, suspension, or termination proceedings against colleges only in the most egregious cases. FSA has never terminated a large, well-respected college from the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, and no one thinks they will do so over this. But FSA might place limitations upon them. Smaller colleges -- particularly for-profit, career colleges -- may not be so lucky.
And while limitation, suspension and termination proceedings for lenders were extremely rare in the past, FSA will now choose to initiate them. This is so because FSA can require “corrective action,” which includes a monetary payment, only as part of a limitation or termination proceeding. As a result, lenders can expect such proceedings.
That is what colleges and lenders can expect from the department in 2008 in terms of administrative enforcement. Here is what they (indeed, every American) should demand of the department: Responsible and principled leadership.
The Department Should Enforce the Law Responsibly and in a Principled Manner
Increased accountability in the FFEL Program should be greatly welcomed by all. Every taxpayer should demand that colleges and lenders, like any other recipient of our hard-earned tax dollars, play by the rules. And colleges and lenders, themselves, should insist on accountability in the FFEL Program. Where true violations of the statutory and regulatory anti-inducement provisions are discovered, FSA should put an immediate stop to it. And where those violations are flagrant or committed with a fraudulent intent, FSA should impose the most serious administrative sanctions.
But internal pressure from the OIG and external pressure from Cuomo, the Congress or the news media to severely punish violators should not be perceived by senior department officials as “cover” for FSA to impose unnecessarily harsh penalties. Getting a “pound of flesh” by reflexively imposing large administrative fines against our nation’s colleges or by unreasonably limiting, suspending or terminating the very lenders that help put our college students through school would be counterproductive.
Instead, FSA should carefully exercise its inherent administrative enforcement discretion by thoroughly reviewing each violation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a sanction is even needed. For example, regulations allow for informal compliance procedures to permit a lender to show that the violation has been corrected or to at least present a plan for correcting the violation and preventing its recurrence. However, if a sanction is needed, then FSA should fashion a penalty that is sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to achieve the purposes of the FFEL Program and to ensure its continued viability and integrity. Among the factors FSA should consider are the nature and circumstances of the violation and the violator’s history of regulatory non-compliance.
The coming year of administrative enforcement will make some people within the FFEL Program very anxious, but it will serve an important purpose. Colleges and lenders must be held to account for conduct that denied borrowers a true choice of lender as a result of improper payoffs. And the department, acting in the best interests of those same borrowers, should strictly enforce the laws on the books and exercise sound discretion in doing so. Administrative enforcement is not a one-size-fits-all process.
Jonathan Vogel is a former Deputy General Counsel of higher education at the U.S. Department of Education and a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. He is now a partner with the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.
While seeking to make college more affordable and accessible, the Obama administration has launched a worrisome but largely unnoticed assault upon the nation’s publishers and the vibrant market in online learning. The U.S. House has approved a White House-backed provision to provide $500 million to develop free, and “freely available,” online college courses.
The administration is pushing forward with its trademark certitude; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan humbly suggested last week that the administration’s American Graduation Initiative is the 21st century counterpart to Abraham Lincoln’s Morrill Act and to the landmark post-World War II GI Bill.
Duncan is particularly enamored with the $500 million to develop the “Online Skills Laboratory,” in which the federal government will “invite” colleges, publishers and “other institutions” to create online courses for Uncle Sam in a variety of unspecified areas. The feds will then make the courses freely available and encourage institutions of higher education to offer credit for them.
The proposal is both short-sighted and destructive. It’s one thing to encourage providers to develop ”open source” wares and to promote measures that encourage publishers, colleges and universities to reduce costs and save students money. But it’s another thing entirely for the federal government to use taxpayer dollars to provide services that will undercut those offered by self-sustaining private enterprises.
First off, it’s not clear what problem the administration hopes to solve. Online courses already exist and are offered by an array of publishers and public and private institutions. Access to online courses is hardly an issue. Online enrollment grew from 1.6 million students in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007, when the figure equaled more than 20 percent of total enrollment at all U.S. degree-granting institutions. U.S. News and World Report reports that nearly 1,000 higher education institutions provide distance learning. For-profit online providers reported that online enrollment was up more than 25 percent from summer 2008 to 2009.
More than half a dozen major textbook publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, W.W. Norton & Co., and John Wiley & Sons, as well as hundreds of smaller providers, develop and distribute online educational content. To take one example, Pearson’s “MyMathLab” is a self-paced customizable online course that the University of Alabama uses to teach online math to more than 10,000 students a year. Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, says that new course development is not a “terribly high need,” and “I’d rather see more of the money go into scholarships for online learning than reinventing courses that have already been invented.”
Now, I’m as skeptical of big publishing as most, and make no claims for the quality of any particular product. But the point is that exactly the kinds of online courses and materials that Duncan and the House are calling for already exist. If Duncan’s claim is that somehow these same providers or new providers will deliver a better-quality product when hired by Uncle Sam, he needs to make that case.
Further, if there is such urgency to act, it is hard to understand why the administration wants to launch a federally directed effort to develop new materials rather than find ways to leverage those that exist.
What is it that federal dollars will buy that isn’t already available? As Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers, has noted, “State-of-the-art, market tested and validated educational materials are already available and in use by millions of students at virtually every public and private college campus in America…. Why spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the government to attempt to replicate products that already exist?” Sure, Allen is an interested party here, but that doesn’t make the observation any less true.
If the administration is concerned about cost, cost-cutting new providers like StraighterLine illustrate that the efficiencies created by new technologies and delivery systems are already allowing some providers to start offering dramatically cheaper instruction.
Today, the chokepoint is often not the lack of existing online courses or materials but the fact that colleges and universities offer them at prices that approximate those charged to students enrolled in more costly traditional instruction. Of course, this stickiness in price has been due to credentialing and regulatory practices that impede the emergence of low-cost entrants; state-funded institutions that use new e-learning students to cross-subsidize other units; and proprietary operators that have happily responded to this cozy arrangement by competing on convenience rather than price.
Rather than addressing the anti-competitive arrangements and cross-subsidies that have led colleges to profiteer at the expense of students, the administration is pushing to spend half a billion dollars to procure online courses that will be offered free of charge to all comers, both in the U.S. and overseas. The proposal would hide true program costs from both student and taxpayer.
This is sensible only if one assumes that federal contracting and oversight ensure better outcomes than market transactions. But this is the same administration that explains that the “public option” is desirable in health care precisely because it believes in market competition. Moreover, if experience with online education during the past decade is any guide, there is little reason to believe that colleges and universities would actually pass cost savings produced by taxpayer-funded courses on to students.
The measure also manages to raise concerns about academic freedom and stifling critical research and development.
Federal law has long buttressed academic freedom and intellectual pluralism by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from exercising control over “curriculum, program of instruction … text books, or other educational materials by any educational institution.” The administration would suddenly have the department funding the creation and dissemination of entire courses. Once the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a freely available course financed with taxpayer funds, it will be difficult for all but the most expensive or distinctive institutions or providers to justify paying for an alternative offering. For the huge swath of the curriculum represented by general and introductory courses, it is not a stretch to imagine that federally-sponsored courses would become a de facto national college curriculum.
As for R&D and market innovation, Duncan’s proposal is a profoundly short-term solution. If the federal government started freely offering large swaths of cell phone service, it would be difficult for providers to retain customers. The result would be the gradual erosion of the market place and reduced investment in new products or services. Short-term savings would be gained at the cost of gutting the sector’s ability to keep innovating and improving.
The administration and Congress might want to think twice about undercutting publishing and computer software when the copyright sector, which employs more than five million people, is already wrestling with intellectual piracy and declining print sales.
For those who think that the U.S. Department of Education can develop instructional programs and identify promising innovations and opportunities more effectively and efficiently than the messy market place, the “Online Skills Laboratory” must sound like a swell idea. For those who believe that functioning markets generally yield better outcomes than state-directed enterprises, it is a very troubling development.
Even as his administration has become the majority shareholder in General Motors, appointed a “pay czar” to oversee compensation at the nation’s major banks, and endorsed a “public option” to ensure “competition” in a health care market already populated by more than 2,000 insurers, President Obama has taken pains to explain that he is acting reluctantly and only under duress -- and that, as he told Fortune magazine last year, he continues to be the same “pro-market guy … I always have been.”
The president explained at the time, “I still believe that the business of America is business. But what I also think is that with all that power … comes some responsibilities -- to not game the system, to not oppose increased transparency in the market place, to not oppose fiscally prudent measures to balance our budget.” If the president meant what he said, it is hard to fathom why his administration is moving to undermine productive enterprises, obscure price mechanisms, and spending a half-billion dollars to replicate existing products.
If the president is a “pro-market guy,” this would be a good time to show it. Does he really want to add chief of the national “Online Skills Laboratory” to his list of burdens?
Frederick M. Hess
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
I have just begun my 47th year teaching physics at the college level, and although my entire career was spent at four year colleges, I did some part time teaching at two community colleges as well. I don't claim to be an expert, but I did learn that the community colleges have many students who are motivated, bright and far more mature than they were at an earlier attempt at college.
The institutions have other students as well. People looking for a convenient way to take a course or two, and a large contingent of individuals who are seeking a career. Seemingly, the mindset of government has settled on this group as representing the raison d'etre of the community college system and the conversation is centered around terms like training, career, Labor Department partnership and employment and earnings outcomes.
Somehow a vast enterprise that many had hoped would serve as an alternative path toward a college degree, with all the learning outcomes that the degree used to stand for, was subsumed in a process for providing jobs. The question we must ask then, particularly about community colleges, but also about many strongly career oriented colleges, is: Are we misleading our students? Are we prematurely sending them on a path to become workers instead of leaders? Craftsmen and middle level managers, but not creators, visionaries, risk takers?
Not that there is anything wrong with the former outcomes. Most of us -- even some who bear the lofty title of professor -- are really not much more than journeymen trying to do an honest and effective job. But these are outcomes that are determined by circumstances, by the economy, by fortune, by need.
They should not be goals set by a postsecondary institution, let alone by a government. The goals of a community college, like the goals of a college, should be to contribute to the transformation of the individual, to sharpen his/her thinking skills, to expose students to a wealth of ideas, and to create the lifelong learner who is an active participant in the intellectual life of society, even as s/he is engaged in a more prosaic career.
College should be sending a message of internal growth that creates the confidence to deal with a rapidly changing world, to know, to understand, to explore, and to think. Interestingly, these factors are essential ingredients in career success as well. Rare is the individual who will spend his/her career in the subject area for which s/he was originally trained. Change is everywhere, incessant and demanding. The nursing graduate who cannot continually adapt to methods, new techniques, and to new equipment is probably obsolete on the day s/he graduated. The same is true for the laboratory technician, the pharmacist, the business person, and the counselor.
Yes, we must have career preparation. People do need jobs and they need entry level skills. More, the potential for a job is a powerful motivating factor. But students must also be prepared for the challenges of change, the new demands of an evolving society, and the new environment which both limited resources and the accelerating scientific discoveries are creating.
The people teaching at community colleges and at career oriented four year schools are as fully qualified as many of the people teaching at research universities, and the fundamental reservoir of talent, of ideas, of a love of learning is as intense and as broad in a community college environment as anywhere else. There is so much more to the community college than what is appropriate for alignment with the Department of Labor, as useful as such tie-ins may be.
The intellectual discourse, and the leadership emanating from the Department of Education, should focus first and foremost on education. Our young people must continually hear the importance of learning, not for any ulterior purpose, but for itself. Just as law schools teach law, while review courses prepare lawyers, the mission of postsecondary entities should be to educate, and only as a secondary goal to prepare for careers.
Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.
Administrative costs on college campuses have soared in recent years, contributing in no small measure to the striking rise in student tuition and fees. Higher education leaders themselves are at least partly to blame for this, as their institutions’ focus on rankings and reputation has led them to spend increasing amounts of time and money on non-academic matters. But true to college officials’ complaints, the growing demands of government regulation also contribute significantly to the administrative bloat.
I propose that institutions be much more explicit about the money they spend to meet federal (and, for public colleges, state) demands. They should add a line to their tuition bills called the Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee, so that parents and students (and, yes, politicians) know just how much regulation costs them. Here’s why.
The explosion in administration costs has been striking. With the number of campus administrators, on average, now equaling the number of faculty members (and, perhaps even exceeding it given the increased reliance on adjunct faculty as resources are shifted to from instructional to full-time administrative positions), it appears that the university administration has become the tail that now wags the educational dog.
Some of this administrative burden is clearly self-imposed. When college students became customers, and institutional rankings became focused on reputation, fund raising and selectivity rather than educational opportunity or academic quality, the education of students became almost incidental to the institutional priority of getting onto somebody’s – anybody’s – top 10 list.
Who has time to worry about what happens in the classroom when there are glossy brochures to design and publish, colleagues to woo (it is they who will assess your institutional reputation when ranking season rolls around), earmarks to seek, research infrastructures to build, grants to win, press to avoid, coaches to hire, merchandising opportunities to pursue and donors to cultivate? I sometimes wonder how cheaply we could run colleges and universities if we got rid of capital campaigns, selectivity ratings, federal grant programs, commercial athletic enterprises, and architectural showcasing and went back to the traditional focus on … silly me … teaching and learning.
Oh that’s right, we do know how affordable it is to educate students without all of the extras -- community colleges are the perpetual reminder of how inexpensive it can be to provide a quality education at an affordable price (although these institutions are currently under-resourced given the role they play not only as institutions of higher education, but also as the new high schools).
Rules Require Cost Shifts
Nonetheless, a great deal of administrative burden does flow from the growing list of federal regulations that may ultimately be the greatest barrier to innovation, efficiency and quality in higher education. Many of these regulations force institutions to shift valuable resources away from classroom instruction and into administrative functions and salaries, not to mention electronic data systems, non-instructional facilities, external advisory groups, and teams of consultants and lawyers who help institutions complete the annual ritual of checking boxes and submitting reports to bureaucrats who are unlikely to read them and who will never confirm their accuracy.
In fact, even when regulators know that they are asking institutions to use outdated and faulty methods to collect inaccurate data on a non-representative population of students, they still hold institutions accountable for producing the coveted report. Can you say … IPEDS?
That does not mean that all regulations are bad or wasteful. Truth be told, there are many regulations that are productive, necessary and critical to maintaining our national edge in the area of higher education. The federal regulatory framework does, in many ways, level the playing field among institutions and set minimal standards for financial and instructional integrity among a group of institutions that are increasingly focused on the wrong priorities. And for those institutions engaged in scientific research, some regulations are critical to ensuring student and worker safety and to protecting our national security when sensitive work or materials are involved (although the current regulations are outdated and far too expansive in this regard).
It is true that colleges and universities can opt out of a great number of federal regulations simply by declining to participate in certain federal programs, such as federal student aid programs and federal grant programs. But during this time of shrinking state support and significant endowment losses, can institutions afford to turn away ANY potential source of funding? I sometimes wonder if institutions ever do the math to determine if the benefits of participating in various federal programs -- and especially federal grant programs -- actually exceed the costs.
While some degree of regulation is a good and necessary thing, how do elected officials, and perhaps even more importantly, the voters, know when the regulatory burden is too great? As we see with each reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, when Congress can’t do anything to address the legitimate challenges that students or institutions face, they show the love by authorizing grant programs that will never be funded, expanding existing programs that have never shown positive results, and adding layer upon layer of additional regulations so that they can tell their constituents just how serious they are about solving all of higher education’s problems.
Congress can’t actually guarantee that undergraduates will have access to the Nobel-winning faculty featured on the glossy college brochures, and they can’t force an institution to offer enough sections of required courses so that all students can graduate in four years, but they sure can force institutions to tabulate more data and report on more things. Whether or not the data are meaningful or the reports are useful is not terribly important. One wonders, however, if for the cost of writing yet another report, the institution could have hired another professor to teach freshman composition.
Sure, it sounds good for an elected official to say that he or she is going to hold an institution “accountable” for instructional quality, or campus safety, or cost containment, but what if the regulatory framework intended to improve a legitimate problem only makes it worse? For example, what if regulations aimed at increasing retention rates serve only to provide the sort of perverse incentives that further erode institutional quality? After all, the unintended consequence of our past efforts to increase high school completion rates is that we essentially made the high school diploma meaningless, and yet we still can’t give the thing away to 20% of the population.
Or what if regulations intended to control escalating college costs serve only to make it more expensive to operate – and, therefore, attend – an institution of higher education? What if regulations intended to increase the quality of classroom instruction do nothing more than shift precious resources away from the classroom and over to the administration building?
The problem with our current regulatory system is that voters do not have access to the sort of information that would allow them to evaluate the true efficacy or the actual cost of the regulations created or imposed by the officials they elect (no, elected officials don’t write the regulations, but it is they who write the laws that require, and set the specifications by which agencies promulgate and enforce regulations). I’ll bet that the average student or parent has no idea just how many federal regulations apply to institutions of higher education, or how the compliance burden contributes to soaring costs.
Elected officials of both parties have realized the polling benefits associated with castigating higher education leaders about rising tuition costs, but do the voters understand that each time Congress passes a law, they contribute significantly to those rising college costs? In the absence of good information, voters seem to think that doing something is better than doing nothing, especially when they are misled into believing that someone other than them will pay the cost (as if regulatory costs are ever absorbed by producers and not passed along to consumers).
Calculating, Not Complaining
In order to provide students and voters with the information they need to make informed decisions, it is imperative that colleges and universities provide clear information about the true costs of these regulations to the people who ultimately foot the bill -- the students, their parents, and the taxpayers.
Instead of just complaining about regulatory burden, colleges and universities should take the time to calculate actual cost of compliance -- including the cost of personnel, information systems, specialized facilities, and programmatic changes that are required to meet regulatory standards -- and then disclose this information to students and the public on the institution’s homepage as well as on each student’s bill.
Moreover, instead of burying compliance costs in the overall tuition rate, I urge institutions to start billing students separately for their portion of the compliance costs through a line-item Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee. Utilities have used this sort of billing practice for years, and perhaps it is time that colleges and universities follow the lead to inform students of just how much the federal government shares in creating, rather than solving, the problem of rising college costs.
Then, when new regulations require the institution to hire more staff or purchase new technology, the students will understand the direct connection between the cost of attendance and increased regulatory burden. Not only will this allow academic leaders to place the cost-increase blame squarely on the shoulders of the responsible parties, but it will also provide students and the public with the information they need to engage more effectively in the democratic process.
Conversely, the data may reveal that regulatory burden contributes only minimally to rising college costs, in which case we know to start looking harder for the real problem.
Regulations clearly have associated benefits as well as costs, but there is generally scant information about the cost side of the equation and an overabundance of promises on the benefits side. It is my guess that once students and the public have access to accurate information, they may be willing to forfeit a few of those “government assurances” in order to be able to afford the opportunity to attend college in the first place.
And with a paring down of regulations to those that are truly important, institutions may be better positioned to comply more fully while at the same time allowing the dog to, once again, wag its tail.
Diane Auer Jones
Diane Auer Jones is president and CEO of the Washington Campus and former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education.
The agenda for change before U.S. higher education is already very long. But with its recent reports on three regional accrediting agencies, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Education has moved the definition of the credit hour closer to the top than I had ever imagined.
If the community procrastinates and the out-of-date Carnegie Unit becomes the default definition applied by the department, accrediting agencies and the institutions and programs they accredit will experience greater upset and confusion than they expect or want.
Based on my experience in higher education, I know that for decades faculties assigned credit hours according to a fairly complex although unwritten matrix. But perhaps I received the wrong introduction to the collegiate credit hour as long ago as 1962.
That year Lewis & Clark College, my alma mater, ran a breathtaking experiment. With several other freshman colleagues, I spent my first collegiate semester in Japan. I took four three-credit courses, two of which were completely independent study and two of which involved about six weeks of face-to-face instruction. I took exams in the latter two and turned in lengthy papers in all except Japanese language.
I could not discern any mathematical formula based on seat time and/or study time that made these each three-credit courses. Nor did it bother me that the actual workload for each three-credit course seemed different. I assumed the faculties of record, as well as the L&C faculty as a whole, must have agreed to the assignment of credit hours. Looking back on that experience, I can also testify that had time on task alone been the measure of learning, I probably deserved four credits each in a couple of those courses.
The “flexibility” of the credit hour continued throughout my collegiate career. In finishing my undergraduate studies, I had a three-credit honor’s thesis course that had no structured time commitments. It prepared me for graduate school where, after finishing a sequence of courses, I registered faithfully each semester for credit-bearing “independent” courses for my doctoral research. I assumed that everyone in the academy understood that the use of credit hours to measure student learning often was not tied to seat time or study time.
My decade as a classroom instructor essentially confirmed that understanding. During it I experienced my share of faculty squabbles over losses of a class day -- and the contact hours it represented -- to such things as post-Thanksgiving Fridays and campus-wide days devoted to the discussions of the issue of the moment. Differences among faculty opinions most often were ironed out in curriculum committees and faculty senates. Sometimes contact hours figured into those debates; sometimes other faculty expectations of student activity counted more heavily. But most faculties seemed to have a basic understanding of how to assign credits.
As I moved from campus to campus in the 1970s, I saw that this understanding apparently carried across institutional boundaries. I moved from institutions with 15-week semesters to others with 10-week semesters. I created courses for the four- to six-week courses in a “4-1-4” or a “4-4-1” academic calendar, and once I taught summer school sessions on a six-week calendar. Calendars shifted, but allocation of credit hours, at least to me, appeared to follow some well-understood “industry standards” related to mastery of course content and only loosely tied to the contact hours of a Carnegie Unit.
The fact is that professional judgment by the faculty long ago supplanted seat and study time in the determination of award of credit hours. Faculties, drawing on education and experience, determine what knowledge and skills a student should master; faculties determine how to break into courses and modules the learning processes necessary for that mastery; and faculties determine the rigor, content, and examination strategies appropriate the award of a specified number of credit hours. Individual members of the faculty might propose the course and the credit it should bear, but most often it is their faculty colleagues who make the final determination through curriculum approval processes. It has proven to be a decent system that provides a way to tally up learning while allowing for considerable flexibility in delivering education and evaluating learning.
Colleges and universities that serve adult learners by recognizing achieved learning through portfolio evaluations or ACE credit equivalency determinations or CLEP testing have for decades unbundled credit hours from a rigid formula of seat time and study time. Colleges and universities that have integrated work-study and community service into their credit-bearing courses have as well. In making these important educational pathways work, expert judgments by faculties determine the award of credit hours, either by assigning those hours directly or accepting them in transfer.
I think back on the times that credit hours influenced accreditation actions when I was with the Higher Learning Commission. To be sure, truncation of a standard academic calendar most often triggered concern. Frequently, however, the key issues had less to do with time on task than rigor of expected learning. Inevitably, expert judgment of faculty rather than contact/study hours informed the decision about the appropriateness of the challenged credit award. Those evaluation team members pored over course syllabuses, evaluated the rigor of the assigned work and study, talked with teaching faculty and students, and sometimes reviewed samples of student work. In some cases they concluded that the award of credit was pretty much in line with industry standards; sometimes they proposed that the accrediting agency require that an institution rework its internal systems for determining the award of credit; and sometimes they found the disconnect between achieved learning and assigned credit to be so out of whack that they recommended denial or withdrawal of accreditation.
The Office of the Inspector General prefers auditable measures for performance. It reads the Higher Education Act with its multiple references to credit hours to demand such measures. It appears to propose that the Carnegie Unit is a pretty good place to start. It has little patience with the difficulty of translating professional judgment into some readily auditable matrix. Considering how little that OIG really understands about higher education, I was only a little surprised by how much weight that office placed on such a weak reed.
I was surprised by how quickly voices from the academy and the department proposed that educational quality should, indeed, probably be linked to the Carnegie Unit. A yardstick based on seat time and supposedly related study time to measure collegiate learning is just the wrong tool.
Years ago others wiser than I said it was time to find a new way to measure achieved learning. That advice was prompted not by the time-on-task mentality of the OIG but instead by growing discontent over the lack of dependable transfer of credits from one college to another. Credit hours in too many transfer debates become separated from the actual learning achieved by the student. Faculties in receiving institutions are more likely to question the fit of the curriculum represented by the credits than they are to question the award of the credit hours themselves. Frequently when credits transfer, they just don’t count toward the degree. But the transfer issue has not gained enough traction to bring about a community-wide review of the credit hour.
The current OIG challenge ought to be sand under the spinning wheels of the higher education community on this matter. If the inspector general decides that when it comes to credit hours the law requires something more measurable than professional judgment and if the department agrees, then instead of retreating to the old time-on-task formulas, the higher education community must hold up for review and major revision the credit hour system of measuring learning. The community has too much experience in assigning credit hours to very different learning experiences to try to return to artificial formulas based on contact and study hours.
Clearly no one is particularly interested in having the Department of Education lead this important exercise. Thanks to the much-vaunted decentralization of higher education in the United States, leadership for the endeavor is difficult to identify easily. But a dozen leaders from higher education associations, accrediting agencies, SHEEOs, faculty organizations, and interested foundations must find a way to create a process as important to higher education in this century as the National Education Association and Carnegie Foundation efforts were to the last century. After all, the Carnegie Unit and the credit hour resulted from that seminal work.
With the Carnegie Unit hanging around as the weighty fallback in these resurrected discussions of the credit hour, we must move with dispatch to recast this academic measurement to fit contemporary higher education and the learning achieved by students in it.
Steven D. Crow
Steven D. Crow is CEO of S.D.Crow & Co., which consults on accreditation and other issues, and former president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
The for-profit college industry is taking fire from all directions because a substantial number of for-profit colleges offer aggressively marketed programs of little value in the job market, leaving individuals unable to repay their debts and saddling taxpayers with the default burden. Much of the bad press is deserved, but the atmosphere of scandal and abuse detracts from a larger point: We have failed to adequately connect college and careers. The current abuses are but the worst-case examples of this failure.
This failure has broader implications because a postsecondary credential has become the prerequisite for middle class earnings, but there are enormous discrepancies in earnings returns between different credentials. Sometimes, a particular certificate is worth more than a particular bachelor’s degree. For example, 27 percent of people with licenses and certificates earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient does. This information is not intuitive, but it is available, and prospective students should have access to it to understand what they’re getting.
Like it or not, postsecondary education is already almost entirely occupational. All certificates and occupational associate degrees are intended to have labor market value. Academic associate degrees have minimal return unless they lead to a bachelor’s. Only 3 percent of bachelor’s degrees are liberal arts, general studies, and humanities degrees -- the remaining 97 percent have an occupational focus. (Add in English, philosophy, religion, and cultural and ethnic studies and you're up to 8 percent.) Moreover, for most students, liberal arts degrees are preparation for graduate and professional degrees, virtually all of which are intended to prepare students for careers.
The current dust-up shouldn’t be about for-profit colleges being all bad, nor about public colleges being off the hook. Rather, we should attempt to use data to find out which colleges are performing for their students.
The current scandal has arisen because of bad information. Slick subway ads and glossy brochures will not suffice to provide potential students weighing their options with accurate career advice. There is a real alternative to late-night infomercials that promise undeliverable outcomes. In fact, the detailed elements of such a system already exist -- including unemployment insurance wage records, transcript and program data, job openings data, and detailed information on occupational competencies.
It’s just a matter of putting them together effectively -- some states have already built the rudiments of such systems -- and making the information publicly available and in online, user-friendly formats.
To build this data system, wage record data would have to be tied to transcript data. Wage record data, which is actual wages at the individual level as reported by an employer, has been around since the late 1930s and is used to verify eligibility for unemployment insurance. These records are held at the state level by employment services agencies, and are also given to the federal government every three months. Transcript data is not currently collected by any federal agency, but is available in varying degrees in all but five states. Eleven states have already linked their transcript and wage record data, and are able to track earnings returns to postsecondary programs. Only seven states can link transcript and wage record data for programs at proprietary schools. This system is still nascent, but has enormous potential to help students evaluate their options, as well as inform institutions in planning new programs and evaluating existing ones.
Building a user-friendly interface is the next step, if we wish for this information to be useful for consumers. Imagine being able, with a few clicks and keystrokes, to explore various careers, find out how many jobs are currently available in the field, how many there are likely to be over the next several years in your area, what education and training programs exist in your local area and online, what they cost, what financial aid is available, and what the average salaries are for graduates of each program. Such a system would empower individuals to choose careers that would truly benefit them, and encourage institutions to offer programs that would prepare them for the jobs that will actually exist.
Such an information system would not eliminate, but would reduce, the future need for intrusive federal oversight or expensive additional state-level regulation. Further, such information systems that connect postsecondary programs with labor markets represent a savings to the taxpayer, improving efficiency in matching programs to careers and curbing the enormous cost of student loan default.
Educators and others may worry that tying curriculums to careers may subjugate education to economics. We clearly need to aspire to a pragmatic balance between postsecondary education’s growing economic role and its traditional cultural and political independence from economic forces. While it is important that we not lose sight of the non-economic benefits of education, the economic role of postsecondary education -- especially in preparing American youth for work and helping adults stay abreast of economic change -- is also central to the educator’s broader mission to cultivate thoughtful individuals.
The inescapable reality is that ours is a society based on work. Those who are not equipped with the skills and credentials necessary to get, and keep, good jobs are denied full social inclusion and tend to drop out of the mainstream culture, polity, and economy. In the worst cases, they are drawn into alternative cultures, political movements, and economic activities that are a threat to mainstream American life.
The current abuses are a wake-up call -- they signal the disenfranchisement of students who are denied access to the middle class and full social inclusion because they lack information on what kind of education can get them there.
Anthony P. Carnevale and Michelle Melton
Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Economy, and Michelle Melton and Laura Meyer are research associates there.
The current student financial aid system and the existing process for assuring quality in higher education share a common problem: key stakeholders in both are either being asked or are seeking to do things they are not capable of doing well. Many of the changes suggested in recent higher education debates would worsen this mismatch of function and responsibility. American higher education does need to be reformed in key ways -- but these changes should focus instead on making sure each group of stakeholders is capable of doing what it is being asked to do.
What is wrong with the current structure? In short, federal and state governments, accrediting agencies, and institutions are being asked to do important tasks without having the requisite skills, resources, and -- often -- legal authority to do them. By the same token, the traditional role of faculty in judging quality is being largely ignored. Parents and students are also required to provide a set of information that often requires estimates and guesses that are not easily made, all at risk of federal penalty if not done correctly.
Federal and state governments are increasingly being asked -- or are themselves seeking -- to assess the quality of higher education. According to proposals now under discussion, federal and state governments would become more involved in issues such as measuring learning outcomes and regulating credit hours. These proposals seem largely to ignore the traditional role of faculty in judging whether and what students have learned, and the responsibility of institutions in establishing credit hours.
To the extent any of these proposals become reality, there would be a tremendous shift in the relationship between government and higher education in this country, as federal and state governments have not typically involved themselves in academic matters. This would also make American higher education more like primary and secondary education, where state and local governments are much more involved than teachers in setting standards for testing and curricular matters. We think moving higher education in the direction of K-12 education would represent a terrible misstep.
Further, President Obama has set a goal to increase graduation and attainment rates very rapidly in this country, much faster than what historical trends suggest is feasible. At the same time, the administration is proposing to require institutions that provide short-term training to collect information on how many of their graduates have jobs and to punish schools whose graduates are unable to find jobs in the fields for which they are trained. They also propose to penalize or eliminate federal aid eligibility for students attending schools where too few graduates repay their loans. While these initial rules would be limited to non-degree programs, it is hard to imagine -- if they prove successful -- why they would not be applied to all of postsecondary education in the future.
While undesirable lending practices certainly should be curbed, an approach based on punitive actions that restrict access while requiring difficult data collection is unlikely to succeed. Further initiatives are needed that deal with chronic predatory practices while preserving and enhancing access in a way that is administratively practical. But to require institutions at any level to collect employment and income data about their graduates is to give them a task that they have not been responsible for in the past and for which they have little skill or resources to accomplish in a reasonable way.
And, one might add, how are job placements to be measured? If a student trains in science and finds a job selling insurance, is that to be counted as success or failure? Will this requirement encourage higher education institutions to become more vocationally oriented than they are already? Will there be a negative impact on general education, innovation and creativity? As a practical matter, are institutions in high-unemployment Detroit to be held to the same standards as schools in the high-employment Washington, D.C., area? Making schools responsible for their job placement rates is likely to result in fewer disadvantaged students enrolling and thus a drop in their participation rate.
Federally recognized accreditors, in addition to reviewing the academic and administrative capacities of institutions before granting accreditation, are also required to review the financial condition of institutions as laid out in Title IV of the Higher Education Act. They therefore must determine whether the institutions are complying with the bewildering complexity of federal student aid regulations. While the accreditors do their best to meet these obligations, they are not well-structured to do any of this financial or administrative review. The system might well benefit from the federal government turning instead to licensed auditors for this work on a contracted basis.
Colleges and universities in the current system are regularly asked to police student aid applications and then required to modify financial aid based on these audits. But without legal access to applicants’ financial records, they must rely on the accuracy and authenticity of student/family submissions, as the IRS will not share individual filings and the institutions lack subpoena authority. The current aid structure also provides little or no incentive for institutions to keep their costs down – if anything, it adds to these costs through stiff administrative requirements. As a result, the aid system does little to encourage institutions to produce the desired results of increasing the participation and attainment rates of low-income students while protecting student interests.
Students and parents are required to fill out the complicated FAFSA and supplemental forms that require data that have already been submitted as part of the federal income tax process. They are further required to answer a difficult set of questions about their assets and liabilities that are not part of the tax filing process. How can student aid officers then be expected to verify the information they receive from parents or students? Moreover, borrowers who qualify for income contingent repayment plans they are required to resubmit their income information because the Internal Revenue Service has been unwilling to supply that information to lenders or other note holders who must arrange these alternatives repayment plans.
Rethinking the Roles
These responsibilities must be re-sorted if the effectiveness of the system is to be improved. To do this, what is needed is a new compact among the key stakeholders in which each is asked to do what it is capable of doing without being asked to stretch well beyond its capabilities. This new compact might look something like this:
Accreditors would no longer be required to review the financial strength of institutions as part of the accreditation process. This would free them up to focus their resources on reviewing institutional academic and administrative capabilities. The federal government instead would rely on contracted auditors as well as its own compliance procedures that define the financial health of institutions. By not having to do financial reviews, accrediting agencies could play a key role in the development of new ways to access institutional performance, such as the qualifications frameworks that many countries in Europe and elsewhere use to clarify what is expected from graduates of secondary and tertiary levels of education and training. There are many approaches to framework-building, and it would be useful to institutions and their constituencies if accreditors could experiment with approaches to sharpen internal measures of quality.
The states under this new configuration could take the lead in engaging with institutions and faculty in the process of measuring and improving the quality of higher education. The Irish quality assurance process provides an example of how government and institutional officials in concert with faculty can work effectively to measure quality in programs within institutions. This programmatic evaluation of quality, in turn, could be used to enhance the institutional accreditation process, as accreditors would have these programmatic reviews available to them as they review the institution as a whole. This would also recognize the reality that programs, departments and schools within an institution can vary considerably in their quality, a fact not really recognized in the traditional institution-based accreditation process in this country.
The U.S. Department of Education would take on the primary responsibility for reviewing the financial capability of institutions, replacing accreditors in this regard. The department’s well-developed formula for assessing the viability of an institution should suffice for this purpose. The role of the IRS vis-a-vis higher education would also change. The IRS already is responsible for auditing those families that claim tuition tax credits. That role might be expanded in two ways: One is to provide income tax information to other federal agencies and institutions for use in the calculation of federal student aid eligibility, by allowing students and parents to check off when filing their income tax forms. And the IRS should also be required to provide income information used to calculate eligibility for borrowers repaying on an income-contingent basis.
Institutions, as a general principle, should not be asked to provide information or to collect information that which they cannot realistically provide. This includes doing audits of income tax forms of parents and students applying for student financial aid. It is also not clear that asking for the employment status and/or income of their graduates is a proper allocation of responsibilities. On the other hand, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask institutions to provide more information about their current students; including how many are Pell Grant recipients and how many of them graduate. It also seems fair to assume institutions would more readily provide this information if it were linked to how much performance-based federal funds they received.
All institutions should also be given more responsibility for their students who borrow and who default on their student loans. This increased responsibility could include having institutions pay a fee for each of their students who default and then allowing or encouraging institutions to pay off the loans of some of their students who did not receive adequate training as evidenced by their chronic unemployment. This shift in responsibilities would seem far preferable to the proposed regulation that would require institutions to gather information on the employment status of all their previous students.
As part of the new compact, students and parents should be able to use their income tax submission as a way to apply for student aid. Moreover, for students and parents who do not pay taxes because of their low income, those on welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and EITC should be fully eligible for federal student aid rather than the current practice that reduces their aid because of the receipt of these non-taxable benefits.
In sum, this reordering of responsibilities would lead to more effective functioning of the student financial aid and quality assurance systems. Each stakeholder would be asked or required to perform tasks that they are well-suited to performing. Institutions, parents, and students would not be asked to provide information that they often do not have. Accreditors would be freed up to do reviews of academic and administrative operations of the institutions as well as initiating reforms such as the development of qualifications frameworks. Faculty would be re-engaged in the process of assuring quality and quality improvement in a policy-relevant way.
This is a much prettier and effective picture than the one we face in the current set of debates.
Arthur M. Hauptman and A. Lee Fritschler
Arthur M. Hauptman is an independent public policy consultant. A. Lee Fritschler is a professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.
The authors of the Government Accountability Office’s for-profit secret shopper investigation pulled off a statistically impressive feat in August. Let’s set aside for the moment that on Nov. 30, the government watchdog quietly revealed that its influential testimony on for-profit colleges was riddled with errors, with 16 of the 28 findings requiring revisions. More interesting is the fact that all 16 of the errors run in the same direction -- casting for-profits in the worst possible light. The odds of all 16 pointing in the same direction by chance? A cool 1 in 65,536.
Even the most fastidious make the occasional mistake. But the GAO, the $570 million-a- year organization responsible for ensuring that Congress gets clean audits, unbiased accounting, and avowedly objective policy analysis, is expected to adhere to a more scrupulous standard. This makes such a string of errors particularly disconcerting.
In fact, the GAO is constituted precisely to avoid such miscues. Its report-vetting process entails GAO employees who are not involved with the project conducting a sentence-by-sentence review of the draft report, checking the factual foundation for each claim against the appropriate primary source. While the research is compiled and proofed, legislators who requested the investigation may keep in routine contact with the GAO to stay apprised of the inquiry.
The GAO issues hundreds of reports a year, and by most accounts revisions of the kind released two weeks ago are almost unheard of. As a former GAO assistant director who worked at GAO for a decade on issues including higher education explained to us Wednesday, the organization’s rigorous review process leaves little or no room for error.
He said, “[It is] extremely rare for the GAO to issue corrected testimony or reports. In fact, in my 10 years that I was there, I never once saw that happen.” He went on to say, “It is stunning to me, given [the GAO] process, how this many errors could have happened. It raises a lot of questions as to the pressure the GAO was under. . . . They must be sweating bullets over at GAO.”
What kinds of mistakes are we talking about here? The corrections were generally changes in emphasis or wording that altered the complexion of the finding. For instance, the original report claimed that a financial aid officer purposely ignored an undercover applicant’s supposed $250,000 in savings when calculating eligibility for financial aid. What the report neglected to reveal was that the financial aid representative did so “upon request by applicant.” This does not necessarily exonerate the financial aid officer, but it does raise questions about the impetus for the inappropriate behavior.
In another instance, an applicant went from being informed that he or she “could take out the maximum in student loans” despite not actually needing that much (revised) to being told that he or she “should” (original) do so. And in a different scenario, a for-profit official supposedly told an applicant that massage therapists could earn up to $100 an hour -- when the review showed that the official actually said that the applicant could expect to earn up to $30 an hour, a figure that is below the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate of $34 for therapists in California.
The list goes on and on. Each of the GAO’s 16 corrections indicates that the recorded evidence was presented in an inaccurate or incomplete fashion, in every case portraying for-profits in a negative light.
What happened? Our source speculated that the pressure of issuing the report in time for Sen. Tom Harkin’s Aug. 4 committee hearing and in time to support the issuance of the Department of Education “gainful employment” regulations led GAO investigators to be less careful than normal.
The problem is that the “we were in a hurry” defense doesn’t explain why the errors all point in the same direction — one that happens to reflect the policy preferences of the chairman of the Senate HELP committee and of administration appointees at the Department of Education. Lanny Davis, the veteran Clinton hand who has now taken to the barricades for the for-profit providers, told us Wednesday that he thinks there is an obvious distinction between “gross incompetence” and “setting out to deceive” — and that the original GAO report crosses the line. “Given that all 16 of the so-called mistakes portrayed career colleges in a negative light, I believe there is no sliver of possibility that this was not an intentional distortion of the truth by somebody with an agenda or somebody who was pushed into doing it,” Davis argued.
The issue goes beyond incompetence or politically motivated misinformation in a government report; the message of the GAO’s initial publication has been “baked in” to the Harkin hearings and the Department of Education’s rulemaking on gainful employment.
Our GAO source observed that the original report’s finding that all of the investigated providers were up to no good was “woven into the overarching narrative that there are a lot of bad actors out there that have to be dealt with.” Even though the GAO’s revisions were substantial enough to merit a public correction, the narrative has crystallized and been wielded by Harkin and Department officials to press the case for their agendas as recently as this week (see Harkin’s December 14 speech on the Senate floor). Even more troubling, despite finally acknowledging the litany of errors that permeate the report, GAO spokespeople have asserted that “nothing changed with the overall message of the report, and nothing changed with any of our findings."
The bigger question is whether we can be confident that the GAO has caught all of the errors or is being honest with the report’s critics. The former GAO official speculated that the recent corrections could be just the "tip of the iceberg in terms of the mistakes made in the report. It calls into question the entire report because it shows that there were not sufficient quality controls in place for whatever reason.” Complicating things is that the GAO is not subject to Freedom of Information Act Requests, which makes getting to the bottom of things just a bit difficult. (Of course, the Department of Education is subject to FOIA requests, and the advocates for the career college sector have filed suit to obtain the primary source materials.)
Regardless of how this gets sorted out, this affair has crippled efforts to talk honestly about problems that need to be addressed. It is hardly shocking that there are unscrupulous for-profit providers trafficking in misinformation and misusing federal student aid dollars. Every sector, public and private, faces such problems. And the practices of all providers that collect public funds deserve to be scrutinized and monitored. The government has every right to police how its student aid dollars are being spent.
But trampling public confidence in an esteemed federal watchdog helps no one — not the individual students that are being taken advantage of by fly-by-night providers, not the colleges that are acting in good faith, not the bureaucrats charged with regulating the sector, and not the taxpayers who wish to root out corruption in student lending.
Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly
Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly are director of education policy studies and a research fellow in education policy studies, respectively, at the American Enterprise Institute.