Congress and College Accountability

Too often, policy makers in Washington aren’t aligned with their voters, argue Clare McCann and Alejandra Acosta.

November 18, 2019
 
 
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The American higher education system is struggling. Fully 40 percent of bachelor’s degree students still haven’t graduated six years later, and more than two in three students at two-year colleges haven’t. Increasingly, students borrow -- and borrow more -- to go to college. And every year, a million borrowers default on their student loans for the first time.

A thousand weak points in the system can send taxpayer money down the drain and students spiraling. A lack of transparency and accountability in the system further exacerbates the issue.

So it’s no wonder that only one in three Americans is satisfied with higher education the way it is. A new public opinion survey that our organization, New America, released this fall found that Americans are asking for more. They want their tax dollars put to good use in higher education, and colleges and universities to be held accountable. Yet too often, policy makers in D.C. -- especially most Republicans -- aren’t aligned with their voters.

More than 90 percent of Americans surveyed think it is important for colleges and universities to provide publicly available data on key indicators of quality, such as graduation rates or graduate employment rates. No matter which way you slice it -- education level, gender, even political party and generation -- the support for transparency is overwhelming. That’s great news for the College Transparency Act, which has the support of dozens of Republicans and Democrats across the U.S. House and Senate.

But at least two out of three Americans would go further and say that institutions should be held accountable for those outcomes -- they should lose some access to taxpayer dollars if they have low graduation rates, high default rates, low rates of students paying down their loans and low rates of graduates earning a living wage. When colleges are failing their students, Americans say they want consequences.

And that’s not just coming from Democrats, as it often does in Congress. Republicans reported feeling even more strongly, in most cases, than Democrats did about the need for more accountability in higher education. For example, over 70 percent of Republicans -- higher than the share of Democrats -- agreed that institutions should lose access to some taxpayer dollars if they have low rates of graduates paying down their student loans. And only one in five Republicans reports feeling comfortable supporting for-profit institutions, where outcomes are often the worst and costs are often high, with their tax dollars.

But looking to Congress, those views aren’t always reflected. Despite overwhelming support from Republican voters for accountability, a bill that Republican lawmakers in the House introduced just a few weeks ago, in response to a Democratic bill, includes virtually no improvements to higher education accountability and would erode nearly all accountability that exists now, eliminating requirements on for-profit colleges like the 90-10 rule and scrapping federal rules that govern the state requirements for authorization to operate that colleges must meet. Other legislation that Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the education committee, introduced in September excluded any whiff of accountability and even left out the overwhelmingly bipartisan College Transparency Act.

The Trump administration has spent the last two years delaying, slow walking and unraveling the gainful-employment regulations, which would pull taxpayer dollars from low-value for-profit and nondegree programs that have left students earning too little to repay their loans. In fact, new rules from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos effectively weaken even the abilities of other regulators -- states and accrediting agencies -- to hold colleges responsible for their actions. A Trump administration official reportedly even orchestrated the return of dollars designated for taxpayer protection to a failing, formerly for-profit college shortly before its closure.

With Republican and Democratic Americans in agreement about the need for transparency and accountability in the United States higher education system, the opportunity is ripe for bipartisan action that will speak to lawmakers’ constituents back home, no matter where they are. So as the 2020 candidates campaign across the country, and reauthorization of the Higher Education Act gets underway here in Washington, both political parties should take note of their constituents' strong opinions about higher education transparency and accountability. Both parties have an interest in the smart, responsible use of taxpayer dollars to ensure students can enroll in and graduate from high-quality programs -- not wind up mired in debt and unable to find a well-paying job.

Bio

Clare McCann is deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America, and Alejandra Acosta is a policy analyst with the higher education policy team there.

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