The nation’s higher education system needs to make several adjustments to better serve students and taxpayers – and now is the time to do it, according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN).
The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee chair said he has four goals to reform higher education in the United States, as Congress embarks on its process to reauthorize the Higher Education Act: ending or reducing overregulation of colleges and universities; ending the federal collection and dissemination of “useless” data; improving the accreditation system; and making sure institutions share in the risk of lending to students. Alexander detailed how he would like to approach each issue and explained which issues have a broad consensus among lawmakers, during a keynote speech hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington on Thursday.
During his speech, Alexander also took issue with the media and other policymakers emphasizing the high cost of college to the point many students are discouraged from attending at all.
“I’ve always said it is never easy to pay for college,” Alexander said. “It’s just easier than most people think.”
One of Alexander’s goals in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which was set to expire at the end of 2013 and has been extended through this year, has been the topic of much discussion in congressional hearings. The idea that colleges should be required to pay some percentage of their graduates’ defaulted loans – known as institutional risk-sharing – is an increasingly popular idea, although some worry it could discourage institutions from serving low-income students or others at a higher risk of defaulting on their loans.
But colleges can help address the issue of student debt in another way, Alexander said, by focusing on curbing over-borrowing and encouraging students to complete their degrees more quickly. He cited a system at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where students are required to pay for 15 credit hours, regardless of whether they take the full course load. As a result, Alexander said most students take the 15 credits and the school’s graduation rate has edged up.
Among other members of the Senate HELP committee, Alexander says there’s a bipartisan agreement on a few proposals, including the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act, which he co-authored with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), to simplify the FAFSA application. Alexander said senators also plan to introduce legislation on simplifying student loan repayment options, as well as several recommendations from a report focused on streamlining federal regulations for colleges and universities.
“The [student loan repayment] process is so complicated that most students don’t take advantage of it,” he said.
Following Alexander’s keynote address, a panel of higher education experts discussed the benefits and potential shortcomings of key higher education reform ideas, such as institutional risk-sharing, college ratings and quality assurance, free college, and adjustments to the accreditation process.
The panelists included Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation; Kevin James, a research fellow with AEI’s Center on Higher Education Reform; Ben Miller, the senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress; and Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
The Department of Education’s (ED) recent decision to step back from its college ratings plan, and to instead publish a variety of data points for students and families to use, was understandable, Miller said.
“It was pretty clear from the get-go … that data quality was going to be a major issue here,” he said. “There was a basic recognition that the quality of data just weren’t going to be good enough to do every single thing the rating system wanted to do. I think part of that speaks to some structural problems we have around data.”
The problem, Miller continued, was that the rating system was trying to “do too many things at once.”
“If you’re trying to rate every single college into some different category, and you’re trying to do it both for accountability and consumer purposes, you’re trying to do too much, and the data … aren’t going to be there for it,” Miller said.
Neal said that although it’s ideal to publish as much information as possible for students and families, it shouldn’t be up to the federal government to do so.
Rather than focusing on rating colleges, Neal said, ED should continue to focus on ensuring Title IV money goes to financially stable schools, but that its test for identifying those institutions needs to be improved.
“The federal role of quality assurance should be focused on protecting students and taxpayers,” Neal said. “[The current system] is opaque and it deceives students and families into thinking they’re making a good investment in accredited schools. … It amounts really to consumer deception, not consumer protection.”
“Bottom line: Having access to key information, information that goes directly to student academic success, should be the essential element in quality assurance,” Neal added. “Transparency – that is where we want to end up.”
Publication Date: 7/17/2015