New Report Issues Framework for Rethinking the Federal Role in Higher Education Quality

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As the conversation around improving higher education policy and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) continues to center on ways to increase accountability and transparency, a new report outlines what the federal role should be in ensuring institutions accepting Title IV aid prepare students for a bright future.    

The report, released Tuesday, was published by two Washington-based groups—Higher Learning Advocates, a non-profit higher education policy advocacy group, and the non-partisan think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP). NASFAA policy analyst Jill Desjean served on a 20-member task force that offered recommendations for the report.

“Accountability is essential for creating a system that drives stronger outcomes for students, more reliable protections for taxpayers, and higher performance by institutions. However, there is still work to be done to agree on critical elements and terms for a system of quality assurance to really work,” Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, said in a press release.

In the report, the groups outlined a framework for federal policymakers to ensure accountability in higher education for students, taxpayers, and institutions, which consists of two main ideas—“gatekeeping,” which they defined as “setting the minimum floor of accountability,” and “continuous improvement,” or creating “incentives for improving the quality of educational and other student outcomes” for schools accepting Title IV aid.  

According to the groups, the government should serve as gatekeepers for students by ensuring that those who graduate from institutions that accept federal aid will be “better off after leaving school than entering,” and that their schools will “help them gain access to professions that reward having a college credential and lead to earnings that are appropriate for their field and level of experience.” With regard to continuous improvement, the groups wrote that students should be ensured that their institutions are working to improve outcomes and increase “the value to the student in relation to the institution’s and program’s mission.”

To serve as gatekeepers of taxpayer money, the groups wrote that the government should not support “fraudulent” universities that “do not provide a meaningful return on the investment for students or serve the public good.” They added that taxpayers should be ensured that federal financial aid programs will continue to allow for all students to receive a high-quality education regardless of their backgrounds.

The groups wrote that to support gatekeeping at the institutional level, schools should be ensured that their quality will be judged based on “transparent measures that are valid, balance simplicity and nuance, and provide a fair assessment of their performance and that have clear thresholds.” The groups added that, with regard to continuous improvement, institutions that prove to be serving students well should receive supports to continue to do so, such as technical assistance and community expertise.

“Improving the federal government’s role in accountability and quality assurance for higher education requires starting with a clear set of goals and principles,” said Ben Miller, senior director of postsecondary education for CAP, in a press release. “As the potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act approaches, this framework provides a way to assess new ideas and ensure that they ultimately result in a federal role for higher education that helps produce a more educated citizenry.”

The groups warned, however, that these policy implications are not a “one size fits all” solution, and need to be adjusted based on how selective an institution is, and “slated institutional and programmatic goals and time horizons,” among other factors. They wrote that policymakers implementing these gatekeeping efforts need to be mindful of unintended consequences, such as penalizing schools that enroll a higher share of underserved populations.


Publication Date: 12/19/2018

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