House Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Strengthening Accountability in Higher Education

By Megan Walter, Policy and Federal Relations Staff

On Wednesday, the House subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment held a hearing, hosted by Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), on the current state of accountability in higher education, focusing on the roles of the three branches of the accountability triad—the federal government, states and accrediting agencies.

The witness panel included Dr. Nicholas Hillman, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis; Melissa Emrey-Arras, director of education, workforce, and income security issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO); Noe Ortega, deputy secretary at the Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education; and Dr. Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, a regional accreditation agency for colleges and universities in the six New England states.

Davis began the hearing by reflecting on how the accountability triad is supposed to function, saying it is charged with “protecting students and ensuring they receive a quality education, but the recent wave of for-profit college closures raises some serious questions about its effectiveness, and unfortunately, students and taxpayers are paying the price.” She continued that when looking at accountability, to “maintain the integrity of our higher education system, we must examine and strengthen each entity of the triad, not as independent members, but as interdependent members, actively coordinating to achieve the goal that students receive quality education.” Davis outlined her recommendations for each branch of the triad, proposing that accreditors need to be more effective at upfront gatekeeping and ongoing monitoring of institutions, states need to have more well-defined roles in the accreditation process, and that the Department of Education (ED) must ensure that any institution receiving Title IV is are financially stable and not defrauding students.

Representing an academic voice, Hillman in his opening statement expressed the importance in recognizing that a high degree of the inequality in student access and outcomes are driven by two main forces: unequal opportunities outside of college, and unequal resources among colleges. Focusing these thoughts on accountability, Hillman said, “the challenges for any accountability system is to ensure it does not reinforce the very inequalities that it seeks to resolve. Improving accountability should focus on improving outcomes for all students, especially those who have been traditionally underserved or poorly served by colleges and universities. More can be done to hold the poorest performing institutions and their programs accountable that are fair, effective, and that promote better student outcomes.”

GAO representative Emery-Arras followed Hillman, by focusing her thoughts on ED’s failures in the accountability system. Emery-Arras spoke to the sanctions that can be put on poorly performing institutions, and said that GAO "found no relationship between poor student outcomes and sanctions, like terminations or probations, that accreditors took. If a school had poor financial metrics an accreditor was more likely to bring up sanctions, but there is no relationship when it came to the quality side of the house with student outcomes." Emery-Arras also mentioned the financial composite score, a formula used by ED to measure the financial health of schools. Emery-Arras purported that the composite score is an imprecise risk measure, explaining that “it predicted only half of the school closures [GAO] looked at, and this is in part due to the fact that the composite score does not reflect changes in accounting practices, relies on outdated financial measures, and is vulnerable to manipulation.” Despite GAO findings, ED has not updated the data used in the composite score since it was created 20 years ago.

Ortega outlined the state role in accountability and accreditation on behalf of colleges and universities, reminding the members that state authorization does not serve as marker of educational quality of an institution; that is left solely to the accreditor. Ortega concluded his remarks by saying “It’s important that we rethink the roles of each member of the triad, in particular the role that states could play in enhancing and sharing some of the accountability expectations around ensuring quality for institutions of higher education.”

Lastly, Brittingham began her remarks, saying, “As accreditors, our job is not to shutdown every institution that encounters a problem. Our role is to monitor and assist institutions and ensure they are making necessary changes in a timely fashion, while at the same time being prepared to withdraw our accreditation if the institution can no longer provide a solid education to its students.”

Davis focused on the state approval process, drawing attention to the fact that state approval processes can vary by sector, and that some public colleges have to meet a higher bar than for-profit colleges, concluding by asking Ortega why this happened. Ortega responded: “When we think about the state authorization process, especially when it relates to the traditional sector of higher education versus the for-profit emerging sector, one of them has been around for a longer time, so you’ve been able to sort of create processes that are tied to a number of things that create legitimacy at the institution. Within the for-profit sector you’ve got new processes that are emerging all the time, new lessons that we’re learning in regards to behaviors and practices at the institutions, so one of them is not as fully developed.”

Related to the “newness” of programs, and not having all the answers for them, Brittingham answered a question from Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) about competency-based education programs and how accreditors are dealing with them. Brittingham replied that it’s important to keep these types of programs in mind when looking to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA).

“Part of the problem is that we try to solve the problems that are in front of us, and it’s hard to anticipate what's going to be coming down the pipeline," she said. She continued, saying that she hopes any HEA reauthorization will have room for institutions and accreditors to experiment with some safeguards.

Chairman of the full committee Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), brought the conversation around to the cost of education, and who of the triad should be in charge of reviewing the cost. Brittingham took that question, saying “I think [the triad] all have some responsibility in that regard. I think part of what we need to look at is the published cost, and the actual cost that students pay, and see the extent to which our colleges and universities are able to enroll students along the economic spectrum and have costs that leave them with debt that is reasonable when they graduate.”

Scott also brought up the cohort default rate (CDR), asking Emery-Arras how she would reform the CDR. Emery-Arras replied, that she would recommend that Congress consider a legislative fix to the metric. She continued explaining that the measurement as is, is currently being gamed by schools and the consultants that they hire. While she could not come up with an exact proposed reform, she was adamant that “[the CDR] should change to something that doesn't allow schools and their consultants to pressure their borrowers into enrolling in long-term forbearance to push off any default that would reflect negatively on the institution.” She explained that often these borrowers end up defaulting in their fourth year or later after graduation, when schools no longer have to report them.

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) asked Hillman to give some examples of financial aid practices that have been the most helpful for students in improving their financial decision making.

“Two things come immediately to mind: firstly, focusing on simplicity," Hillman replied, drawing on examples from the University of Wisconsin. Hillman went on to describe a grant program that provides admitted students with an income under a certain threshold a guarantee that their tuition and fees would be covered, the income threshold being the only requirement. In addition to that, Hillman said, “it's not enough to just provide more information, you have to make sure that students can also navigate the process to be able to benefit from it.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) used her time to voice her concerns about the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) and its ability to inflict so much harm on students and ED's attempt to reinstate the accrediting body. She added that “accreditors have consistently missed warnings signs from for-profit colleges, including financial issues, lawsuits, and poor outcomes.” She warned that ED's attempt to provide more flexibility to accreditors and even less federal oversight through the negotiated rulemaking process is concerning.

Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) closed the hearing, stressing that strong accountability for colleges and universities is vital to ensuring a quality higher education for the nation's students and the importance of focusing on the institutions where the outcomes are the most devastating. She ended her comments reminding the committee that “there are differences between educational sectors that we cannot ignore.”


Publication Date: 4/3/2019

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