Here’s Where the Left and Right Agree on Accountability in Higher Education

By Allie Arcese, Director of Communications

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Managing Editor

Whether Congress makes progress toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) this year or after the 2020 presidential election, it’s been made clear that both sides of the aisle are interested in holding colleges and universities more accountable for student outcomes—but determining exactly how to do that complicates things. 

In a new report released Monday, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Third Way outline areas of agreement, disagreement, and potential paths forward for policy reform in HEA reauthorization. The two Washington-based think tanks convened a small group of bipartisan higher education experts from the Department of Education (ED), Capitol Hill, and academia. 

Overall, the group agreed that accountability as it stands in higher education is “unsatisfactory” in addressing concerns over non-completion, student loan debt, and student return on investment. 

“One of the things about this time of hyper-polarization is that it’s easy even for places where we can find common ground for the lunatic fringe and the outrage empresarios to make things so difficult that we can’t actually even find common ground when it’s there to be found,” said Rick Hess, a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI, during a discussion on the report.

Democrats and Republicans generally agreed that the next reauthorization should include policy changes that will have an impact on improving student outcomes, which may mean a shift in the role the federal government plays in higher education. While Democrats said the federal government should find a way to hold institutions accountable for student success, Republicans were more skeptical that the government has “the right metrics or the know-how to responsibly hold schools accountable.” 

“Both sides of the aisle were concerned that federal efforts to promote accountability might inadvertently stack the deck against institutions that have a specialized mission, are open access, or serve a disproportionate population of high-need students,” the report said. 

The group was split as to whether any accountability metrics should be sector-specific. While Democrats have long pushed for greater accountability and a different set of standards for for-profit institutions, Republicans have pushed back, claiming all institutions of higher education should be held to the same standard. Policymakers have seen that ideological back-and-forth play out in the nearly decade-long struggle over the gainful employment regulations, which ED recently repealed. 

The report also found that Democrats and Republicans varied as to whether they were more supportive of transparency efforts through expanded consumer information, or stricter accountability standards that would bring consequences against institutions found to be serving students poorly. 

“For a number of those on the right, giving Washington a bigger role in promoting transparency through expanded data reporting was as far as they were willing to go—at least for now,” the report said. “Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, also worried aloud that without clear incentives or the threat of sanctions to change behavior, students may remain stuck in schools that continue to fail them year after year.”

The group agreed that insofar as HEA does address transparency and accountability, multiple metrics should be used to gauge institutional success, to account for factors that may fall outside a college or university’s control. Likewise, both sides agreed that should accountability come into play in a more noticeable way, there needs to be a range of sanctions, and the implementation of those sanctions matters. 

“Our conversations revealed bipartisan agreement that too many students are ill-served by college, that colleges are insufficiently responsible for student outcomes, that too many students wind up with too much debt, that taxpayers cannot be confident that their dollars are being invested wisely, and that the higher education ‘market’ is in the grips of dysfunction,” the report said. “While there are significant, principled disagreements about how to approach HEA and what the federal government’s role should be in higher education transparency and accountability, it is also clear that stakeholders from the left and the right see the opportunity for a path forward.”


Publication Date: 7/16/2019

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