Republicans seek more transparency in higher education

As the United States House of Representatives prepares to take up the primary piece of federal higher education legislation for the first time in nearly 10 years, the party lines couldn’t be clearer: Republicans are proposing a comprehensive rewrite of the law, and Democrats say they will fight tooth and nail to prevent passage of what they see as a deeply flawed proposal.

At the centre of the debate is the Higher Education Act, which was created in 1965 to ensure that all students have access to higher education regardless of family income. The legislation gives the federal government leverage over institutions that today want access to billions of dollars of federal student aid.

The Higher Education Act is supposed to be reauthorised every six years but has not been touched since 2008. In the meantime, the past decade has seen a number of significant developments in higher education, including growing concerns about skyrocketing tuition fees and student debt, calls for more accountability and a growing disenchantment with traditional institutions of higher education.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published in September found that while 49% of Americans believe four-year colleges and universities are doing a good job, nearly the same share (47%) say they aren’t sure college is worth the cost. A Pew Research Center poll released in July found a sharp rise since 2015 in the share of Republicans who say colleges have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.

American families have “lost faith in what post-secondary education is doing for people and they don’t see the payback”, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, told a gathering of higher education professionals last week.

Foxx is the primary author of the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform, or PROSPER, Act, a 542-page bill unveiled in December that supporters say would address problems in higher education by streamlining the student aid process, easing up on burdensome regulations and demanding increased transparency among colleges and universities.

But critics say it shrinks student aid, fails to protect consumers and creates a two-tier higher education system that essentially relegates low- and middle-income students to job-training programmes while wealthier students pursue four-year degrees and graduate education, which on average lead to greater job stability and earnings.

Moreover, some Democrats call the proposal by Republicans a partisan effort, noting that PROSPER was developed quickly and quietly, with little to no input from the higher education community on key provisions and leaving little opportunity for debate.

“It’s important to have the voices of all stakeholders at the table,” Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), ranking member of the House education committee. “At the end, it’s a matter of priorities, and the House’s bill priorities are all wrong.”

PROSPER’s critics are counting on the Senate to temper the potential impact of any final legislation with a more conservative proposal. Differences between the House and Senate versions would then have to be hammered out.

While advocates for traditional colleges and universities have raised some of the gravest concerns about PROSPER, the for-profit sector would stand to benefit from many of the proposed changes. Michael Dakduk, director of government relations for Career Education Colleges and Universities, which represents institutions that offer career-specific programmes, said his members took an unfair beating under former president Barack Obama’s administration.

“Things are getting better now that Congress and the White House are controlled by Republicans,” he said.

Foxx and Scott gave their remarks last week in separate sessions during the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a non-profit group that advocates on behalf of accreditation and quality assurance professionals.

In past reauthorisations, accreditation and quality assurance have remained largely under the Higher Education Act radar, but PROSPER calls for more than a dozen changes that would have an impact on how accrediting organisations are evaluated, how much higher education is regulated and how innovation is encouraged.

Focus on outcomes

Quality standards would focus on student learning and educational outcomes, which would represent a major shift in emphasis from current standards, which focus on facilities and equipment, student support services and similar kinds of measures.

Other changes include a requirement that accrediting commissions include at least one member, along with requirements on how accrediting organisations can apply accreditation standards to institutions with a religious mission.

“Issues of quality, outcomes and accountability are on the forefront of members’ minds in a way they haven’t been before,” said Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a non-profit founded in 2016 to advance policy that increases student success. But, she noted, their concerns are expressed in the rhetoric of lawmakers more so than through the bill’s language.

David Baime, senior vice president of government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, noted that the proposal does not set mandatory minimum standards for quality or outcomes. That “is a big political achievement that should not go unnoticed”, he said.

In her remarks, Foxx emphasised the limited role for federal government. “I don’t want the federal government to define success,” Foxx said. “I want you to figure it out. We depend on you to judge the quality of institutions.” But she also called on institutions to be more transparent about their outcomes “so students can make better decisions about what programme they’d like to do”.

A number of conference attendees acknowledged that traditional colleges and universities need to do a better job of explaining themselves.

Leon Botstein, long-time president of Bard College, known for its commitment to the liberal arts, took issue with the logic behind Foxx’s comments.

That so many Americans are sceptical of higher education “doesn’t indict what we do necessarily, it doesn’t make the opinion right”, he said. Nevertheless, “the terms set by Democrats and Republicans should be unacceptable to us, but we have to convince the public of that”.