Federal policy

Budget compromise would preserve maximum Pell grant, NIH funding

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A budget compromise would slightly increase funding for the National Institutes of Health and change eligibility for the largest federal grant program for college students.

Majority of senators sign letter opposing Defense Department rules

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To win Republican senators' support, letter opposing new Defense Department policies on tuition assistance was changed to eliminate references to for-profit colleges as "subpar" institutions.

Growing federal role in accreditation will have drawbacks (essay)

For accreditation, 2016 will be remembered as an inflection point, a pivotal moment, a culmination of a multiyear revamping, which means this space is now dominated by two features.

The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Education, has consolidated its authority over accreditation. It is now the major actor directing and leading this work. Second, the public, whether members of the news media, consumer protection advocates, think tanks or employers, is now in agreement that the primary task of accreditation is public accountability. That means accredited status is supposed to be about protecting students -- to serve as a signal that what an institution or program says about itself is reliable, that there are reasonable chances of student success and that students will benefit economically in some way from the educational experience.

Both the strengthened federal oversight and expectations of public accountability have staying power. They are not temporary disruptions. They will remake accreditation for the foreseeable future.

At least some government authority over accreditation and public concern about the space and accountability are not new. What is new and what makes this moment pivotal is the extent to which there is agreement on both the expanded federal role and public accountability. And both are in significant contrast to longstanding practice of accrediting organizations as independent, nongovernmental bodies accustomed to setting their own direction and determining their own accountability.

This disruption can result in serious drawbacks for accreditation and higher education -- and students. Those drawbacks include a loss of responsible independence for both accreditation and the higher education institutions that are accredited. This independence has been essential to the growth and development of U.S. higher education as an outstanding enterprise both when it comes to quality and to access. There are concerns about maintaining academic freedom, so vital to high-quality teaching and research, in the absence of this independence. We have not, in this country, experimented with government and the public determining quality, absent academics themselves. Government calls for standardization in accreditation can, however unintentionally, undermine the valuable variation of types of colleges and universities, reducing options for students.

Consolidation of Federal Oversight

By way of background, “accreditation is broken” has been a federal government mantra for several years now. For the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as the executive branch, messages about perceived deficiencies of accreditation have been driving the push for greater government oversight, whether delivered from a secretary of education describing accreditors as “watchdogs that don’t bite” or an under secretary talking about how accreditors are “asleep at the switch” or a senator maintaining that “too often the accreditation means nothing” or a leading House representative saying accreditors may have to change how they operate in the changing landscape of higher education.

Members of Congress, through various hearings, bills and statements, have called for changes that would focus accreditation more on student learning, create an alternative accreditation system or strengthen government oversight of accreditation, especially in relation to protecting students. Yes, some policy makers are concerned about the department going too far. Crucially, however, the debate is not about what is being done -- greater federal oversight and public accountability -- but who should have the authority to act.

Both Congress and the department are pushing accreditation to focus more intently on both the performance of institutions and the achievement of students. From a federal perspective, “quality” is now about higher graduation rates, less student debt and default, better jobs, and decent earnings. The Education Department’s Transparency Agenda, announced last fall, has become a major vehicle to assert this federal authority. The Agenda ties judgment about whether accreditation is effective to graduation and default information, with the department, for the first time, publishing such data arrayed by accreditors and publishing accreditors’ student achievement standards -- or identifying the absence of such standards. The department also is taking steps to move accreditors toward standardizing the language of accreditation, toward more emphasis on quantitative standards and toward greater transparency about accreditation decisions.

Consistent with the Agenda, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), the federal body tasked with recommending to the secretary of education whether accrediting organizations are to be federally recognized, is now including attention to graduation and default rates as part of its periodic recognition reviews. Committee meetings involve more and more calls for judging accrediting organizations’ fitness for federal recognition based less on how these organizations operate and more on how well their accredited institutions and programs are doing when it comes to graduation and debt. And NACIQI has been clear that, because of the importance to the public and to protecting students, all activities of accrediting organizations now need to be part of the committee’s purview.

Most recently, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Brian Schatz introduced a bill on accreditation that would upend the process. The bill captures the major issues and concerns that have been raised by Congress and the department during the past few years, offering remedies driven by expanding federal authority over accreditors and institutions: federally imposed student achievement standards, a federal definition of quality, federal design of how accreditation is to operate and federal requirements that accrediting organizations include considerations of debt, default, affordability and success with Pell Grants as part of their standards. While it is unlikely that anything will happen with this bill during the remainder of the year, it provides a blueprint for change in accreditation for the next Congress and perhaps the foundation for the future reauthorization the Higher Education Act itself.

Moreover, as government plays a more prominent role in accreditation, the process has become important enough to be political. Lawmakers sometimes press individual accrediting organizations to act against specific institutions or to protect certain institutions. Across both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, lawmakers make their own judgments and are public about whether individual institutions are to have accredited status and how well individual accrediting organizations do their jobs. Now, when accrediting organizations go before NACIQI, not only are they concerned about meeting federal law and regulation, but they are also focused on the politics around any of their institutions or programs.

In short, the shift in Washington -- defining quality expectations for accreditors in contrast to accepting how accreditors define quality, intensive and extensive managing of how accreditors are carrying out their work in contrast to leaving this management to the accreditors, seeking to standardize accreditation practice in contrast to the variation in practice that comes with a decentralized accreditation world of 85 different accrediting organizations -- has placed the federal government in a strong oversight role. There is bipartisan support in Congress and across branches of government for this rearrangement of the accreditation space. It is difficult to imagine that the extent to which the federal government influences the activity and direction of accreditation will diminish any time soon, if at all.

Consolidation of Public Expectations

The pressure on accreditation for public accountability has significant staying power in a climate where higher education is both essential and, for many, expensive, even with federal and state assistance. There is a sense of urgency surrounding the need for at least some higher education for individual economic and social well-being as well as the future competitiveness and capacity of society. At the same time, disturbingly, student loan debt now totals more than $1.3 trillion, and in 2016 the average graduate who took out loans to complete a bachelor’s degree owed more than $37,000. In this environment, the public wants accreditation to focus on students gaining a quality education at a manageable financial level.

Accreditation is now the public’s business. On a weekly basis, multiple articles on accreditation appear in the news media, nationally and internationally. Social media reflect this as well, with any article about accreditation, but especially negative news, engaging large numbers of people in a very short period of time. Think tank reports on accreditation are increasing in number, mostly focused on how it needs to change.

From all sources, the focus is on accreditation and whether it is a reliable source of public accountability. Media attention is on default rates as too high and graduation rates as too low, on repeated expressions of employer dissatisfaction with employees’ skills and whether accredited institutions do a good job of preparing workers. In the face of a constant stream of articles highlighting these concerns, the public increasingly questions what accreditation accomplishes and, in particular, whether it is publicly accountable.

Moreover, where judgments about academic quality were once left to accreditors and institutions, technology now enables the news media and the public to make such judgments on their own. Enormous amounts of data on colleges and universities are readily available, from graduation rates to attrition, retention and transfer rates. Multiple data sources such as the federal government’s College Scorecard, College Navigator and Education Trust’s College Results Online are now available to be used by students, families, employers and journalists. Urgency, concern and widespread opportunity to make one’s own judgment about quality have all coalesced to raise questions about why any reliance on accreditation is needed, unless accreditation carries out this public accountability role. Perhaps the most striking example of this development is Google’s recent announcement that it is working with the College Scorecard to present Scorecard data (e.g., graduation rates, earnings, tuition) as part of a display when people search for a particular college or university.

What’s Next?

This, then, is the revamped accreditation space, with the federal government determining the direction of accreditation and a public that is driving accreditation into a predominantly public accountability role.

Will this revamping be successful? Will students be better served? Only if government, the public, higher education and accreditation can strike a balance. Expanded government oversight should be accompanied by acknowledging and respecting the independence, academic judgment and academic leadership long provided by colleges and universities and central to effective higher education and accreditation. Emphasis on public accountability should be accompanied by valuing the role of academics in determining quality. By and large, this has been accomplished through the relationship between accreditation, higher education and government until recently. The way forward needs this same balance.

Judith S. Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a membership association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities.

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Packed room during June meeting of federal panel that oversees accreditors
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Amid Trump's comments, Castro's death, uncertain climate for U.S.-Cuba exchanges

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Trump’s comments on possibly undoing U.S.-Cuba “deal” in wake of Fidel Castro’s death cast uncertainty about future of educational exchanges with island nation, which have been on the rise.

Udacity and boot camps offer money-back guarantees for job placement

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Udacity and some boot camps offer money-back guarantees despite state bans on job-placement promises in higher education. But some say the offers are a form of risk sharing worth considering.

Congressional Research Service memo outlines Obama administration rules eligible for Congressional Review Act

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A Congressional Research Service memo indicates regulations finalized after May 30 will be subject to expedited review by Congress.

Education Department releases gainful employment data for vocational programs

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Graduates who earned certificates at public institutions have larger salaries, but there is wide variation between programs even at the same institutions.

What's the future of federal push on higher education 'innovation'?

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Amid uncertainty over new administration’s stance on postsecondary education, Under Secretary Ted Mitchell exhorts colleges and other supporters of expanding postsecondary opportunity to “double down” on their work.

A compilation of key articles on higher education and the 2016 election

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Key articles about the candidates’ positions and how the campaign has played out on campus -- plus a selection of commentary.

Essay on restoring promise of a free public higher education

Time for a reset in our thinking about higher education.

The Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce recently released a study that estimates the potential impact of Hillary Clinton’s proposal to eliminate public college tuition for all in-state students whose families make less than $125,000 per year. The center concluded that impact would be an increase in enrollment at public institutions of between 9 and 22 percent, with a “best guess” estimate of 16 percent. Three-quarters of the enrollment growth would come from attracting new students into higher education. And that’s the point of her proposal: to attract marginalized students into higher education.

Unfortunately, much of the commentary around the center’s estimates has focused on the potential impact on private colleges and universities. These institutions could face declines in enrollment that would account for the remaining quarter of the increase in public college enrollments. Such concerns would be fully warranted if all private colleges and universities had on-time graduation rates as high as the 91 percent at Davidson College or Georgetown University. But they don’t.

The on-time graduation rate for half the nation’s four-year private nonprofit colleges and universities is below 39 percent. For a quarter of all private nonprofit institutions, the on-time graduation is below 22 percent. At four-year for-profit colleges, the median on-time graduation rate is 14 percent. Even more alarming, nearly a third of four-year for-profits graduated no students on time.

But it isn’t just on-time graduation rates that need to be considered when judging the promise of a free public college option. It is our nation’s addiction to debt to finance higher education.

For the last seven years, President Obama, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and current U.S. Secretary of Education John King have worked to help students manage their college debt by providing opportunities to repay it by working in local, state or national nonprofit organizations. They also have introduced more generous income-based repayment plans. And these opportunities are paying off -- both for the students and for our economy. Recently, we learned that nearly 432,000 student loan borrowers registered their work with employers that qualify them for Public Service Loan Forgiveness and a quarter of borrowers were repaying their loans through the William D. Ford Direct Loan Program, using one of several income-based repayment plans.

While loan repayment programs, whether income-based or through public service, have relieved the strain and burden on thousands of individual borrowers, together they are not enough to reduce the impact of $1.26 trillion in outstanding federal student loans on the U.S. economy. The latest research studies confirm that student loans negatively impact home and auto purchases as well as small businesses and family formation.

In retrospect, we have all contributed to the growth in student loans. From the 1860s to the present day, if we look at the history of federal support to higher education, our nation’s leaders recognized that increasing the educational attainment of citizens was good and necessary for the country’s future. When direct federal support to students was introduced with the GI Bill in the 1940s, it fueled a sustained era of national prosperity that only a prolonged and unproductive war brought to an end.

Through the 1970s, students from a low- or moderate-income family could afford to go to a public college and take on no debt. These institutions were affordable because taxpayers supported low tuition -- including tuition-free community colleges in many states -- and need-based grants like Pell Grants and State Student Incentive Grants. The combination of an increasingly educated workforce, with little debt to hold us back, fueled economic prosperity.

An obscure law rooted in President Reagan’s government reform efforts -- the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 -- addicted us to paying for higher education primarily through debt. Students and families increasingly took out loans to pay for a college education. Under FCRA, the lifetime costs of federal loans -- not just student loans -- are recognized and paid for in the year in which the loan is made. The lifetime cost of federal student loans are measured by discounting the expected future cash flows associated with the loan to a present value at the date the loan is disbursed. From a federal budgeting perspective, the FCRA made it cheaper to make loans to students than give them grants.

Today, students who graduate without any college debt still reap great economic benefit from a higher education, but they are a shrinking share of graduates. Today, nearly three-quarters of students graduating from four-year private nonprofit colleges have borrowed for their undergraduate education. Nearly 90 percent at four-year private for-profit institutions have borrowed.

The students who graduate without debt get all the rewards of pursuing a higher education with none of the risks associated with the debt or making bad choices, like being lured into college by predatory for-profit providers or enrolling in academic fields that lack substantial economic returns.

For everyone else, it is an enormous gamble. For those with debt and no degree, the prospects are the worst. Those who drop out receive none of the rewards of pursuing a college education while they took on all of the risks from being out of the labor market and taking on student loans. For those with large amounts of debt who successfully completed a degree program, it largely is a question of the quality of the credential and the field of study. If they attended a first-rate institution and received a degree in a high-demand field, they’ll do well. For everyone else, it depends.

And that’s the problem. It depends on decisions about where to go to college and what to study that an 18-year-old -- or 32-year-old -- makes with no ability to predict the future and, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration to develop and publish data on labor market outcomes, less than perfect information.

But the nation and every state benefit from the cumulative impact of higher levels of educational attainment. Even those who don’t go on to higher education benefit from increases in productivity and gains in earnings because of those who do.

So, if we must talk about making America stronger together -- or greater again, depending on your political persuasion -- we must make higher education free again. When running for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed “College for All” -- the name Carmel Martin and I used when we released our plan for debt-free higher education in February 2015. Senator Sanders’s bold proposal encouraged former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to propose eliminating tuition for students from working families who attend public colleges in their home state, assuring continued support to students from low- and moderate-income families through Pell Grants and other programs, and creating a much-needed new college compact -- something I and my colleagues at the Center for American Progress proposed -- to increase accountability and improve our nation’s return on investment resulting from higher education. Private colleges will need to make adjustments if they want to stay competitive, but that’s just the cost of making our higher education system work for everyone.

As a society, we pay for what we value. So, do we want to be known as a society that values war more than peace, prison more than education? It’s time to step up and restore America’s promise of a free public higher education opportunity for the current and future generations of the greatest country on earth.

David Bergeron is a senior fellow for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. He previously served as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

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