Strengthening Higher Education Accountability Focus of Senate Committee Hearing

By Megan Walter, Policy & Federal Relations Staff

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), held a hearing hosted by Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), focusing on how to better hold colleges and universities accountable to students. He said, “I often hear from students asking, ‘Is college worth our time and money?’ I believe there are steps we can take to make our higher education system more accountable, to provide those students and the taxpayers backing their loans, with a clear ‘Yes, college is worth it.’”

Alexander zeroed in on his disapproval of the Cohort Default Rate (CDR) as a marker of institutional accountability, as the CDR doesn’t take into account the one-third of borrowers who are t yet in default, but who aren’t making their payments on time. Alexander also brought up issues with gainful employment saying, “We need more effective measures of accountability, but I don’t want the federal government acting as a national ‘school board’ for colleges, telling states and accreditors, boards of directors and institutions, how to manage the 6,000 colleges and universities.”

Before turning the hearing over for the witness panel to give their testimonies, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) set the tone for the discussions to come, saying, “We have to ensure that our reauthorization of the Higher Education Act includes an accountability system that is as nuanced as our schools and our students.”

The witness panel included Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, Dr. Adam Looney, director of the center on regulation and markets at Brookings Institute, Dr. David Tandberg, vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), and Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a regional accrediting agency.

During the witness testimonies, familiar subjects to last week’s House accountability hearing were brought up, including the role of the accountability triad, how poor accountability standards disproportionately affect low-income and minority students, and the waterfall effect unpaid loan burdens have on students and taxpayers.

Alexander started the questioning by focusing on the role of accreditation agencies, asking Wheelan, “Did Congress give you and other accrediting agencies jobs to do in the accreditation process that take away from the time that you could spend on educational quality?” Wheelan responded that she believes the majority of the requirements are important, but did note that the regulations surrounding substantive changes are particularly burdensome and can “get in the way of us participating with our institutions that really need some help.”

Alexander followed up by asking Looney if he believes that low-income students would be helped or hurt if institutions were measured and held accountable by whether or not students are actually paying back their loans. Looney replied saying, “I think we do low-income students no service by sending them to programs with demonstrated records of failure where they cant repay their loans. I think if we use measures of repayment, that would send a stronger signal of how they’re faring after they leave school. It's more reflective of whether they get a job and their earnings.”

Both Murray and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA)  took their time to ask the witness panel about their thoughts on accountability in relation to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, with Murray focusing on how the role of states can be improved and Kaine looking at the reauthorization from a wide approach.

Tandberg responded to Murray saying that he “feel[s] there are some baseline items that ought to be looked at when states are looking to authorize or reauthorize an institution and that means a focus on quality outcomes, and do schools have the resources to provide those outcomes. We also need to make sure that there are sufficient consumer protections built into the requirements that the states have for the institutions and that the institutions have themselves, to provide recourse for students.”

McMillian Cottom looked at reauthorization from a broad approach when replying to Kaine, and said that “Accountability at any point in time has to account for the higher education system we have presently, and will ideally take into account the changes that are happening [or will happen]. So we’re regulating for the system we have and the one that seems to be emerging.” In reference to low-income and minority students she continued, “These aspects are most important for the students that most need schools to be held accountable.”

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tina Smith (D-MN), brought up some of the predatory practices that have been going on in the for-profit sector of the higher education industry, and asked the panel if they believe the current accountability system does enough to protect students that are enrolled at institutions that are at a high risk of closing abruptly.

McMillian Cottom responded with a resounding no, continuing to say that the system does not do nearly enough. She talked about the effects of an institution closing abruptly, not only on the immediate consequences for students and employees financially, but the long-term effects, as well as the “extreme opportunity costs” that are lost. These opportunity costs include changing work schedules, leaving jobs, or paying for childcare, to accommodate class schedules, as well as the need to be enrolled at an institution for some students to keep child care subsidies. She said “these are costs that can’t be regained,” and that accountability shouldn’t just focus on when a school is open, but how it closes if it has to.


Publication Date: 4/11/2019

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