Capital: Obama, Rubio Put Higher Education On Notice

President Barack Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, don't agree on much. But both want to change the way Washington decides which colleges are eligible for the $175 billion a year the federal government spends on grants, loans and tax breaks for students.

It's another sign of the intensifying political pressure on American higher education to slow the pace of tuition increases and to brace for the biggest changes in its business model since the end of World War II.

Mr. Obama has been preaching the virtues of accountability and transparency for some time. It didn't start with him: George W. Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spelling, tried too.

Now, the White House has taken it up a notch. The State of the Union repeated rhetoric Mr. Obama has used before, but one paragraph in an eight-page elaboration that accompanied the State of the Union address asked Congress "to consider value, affordability and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid."

How? "Either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system or by establishing a new, alternative system…."

That got the colleges' attention. The president previously had talked about linking a small slice of federal aid to measures of performance. Now he seemed to be suggesting wholesale change.

Then came Mr. Rubio. In his response to the State of the Union, he said, "We need student aid that does not discriminate against programs that nontraditional students rely on—like online courses or degree programs that give you credit for work experience."

The focus by both President Barack Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio on the accreditation system suggests a worry that the old system could stifle innovation.

The White House won't elaborate on the changes to accreditation that the president has in mind. Indeed, it's not clear the administration even has a fully fleshed-out proposal.

Nor is congressional action imminent. Last year, Obama legislative proposals to put more strings on college aid went nowhere.

Accreditation began in the late 19th century as peer-review quality control, financed and run by colleges and universities. When the government began pouring money into student aid, first with the GI Bill after World War II and later with the forerunner of Pell grants in 1965, it had to decide what was a college and what wasn't. It outsourced that to the accreditors.

That 19th-century system isn't working so well in the 21st century.

The first threat was abuse. Some for-profit schools enrolled students who paid tuition with government-guaranteed loans, never finished and stiffed taxpayers. "Every bad thing you read about happened in an accredited institution," says Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the nonpartisan New America Foundation.

Accreditors were slow to pull the plug on any school and were ill-equipped to evaluate national online programs. The Department of Education wasn't much better at policing the system.

The second, more recent threat is the explosion of online courses offered by the nation's most prestigious universities—the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that herald the biggest changes in teaching since the overhead projector.

"Right now," Mr. Carey has written, "students can give their Pell grants to the sketchiest of accredited for-profit colleges and perpetually failing public schools but not to edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider founded by Harvard [and] MIT."

That won't last, of course. The focus by Mr. Obama and Mr. Rubio on accreditation suggests a worry that the old system could stifle innovation and prevent competition from new, perhaps more efficient, forms of teaching.

The university establishment is wary. Some parts resist all but the most modest changes or insist what they do can't ever be measured. Others fear that what Washington really wants isn't merely accountability, but a say in college curricula.

"You can't get $150 billion in direct grants and loan guarantees without some oversight," says Peter McPherson, head of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. "The question is how you do it. I think it's a mistake for the federal government to measure quality directly. I mean how is the federal government going to tell you whether a calculus course delivers quality? But if almost none of your students graduate and they don't pay back their federal loans, you've got a problem."

In some ways, American higher education is where American health care was a couple of decades ago. The U.S. has, without question, the world's finest system of higher education.

But it's increasingly expensive. It's inefficient. Quality is uneven. There are mounting public doubts about whether college in all its forms is worth the cost. And it's getting an increasing sum of taxpayer money in an era of big deficits. As Mr. Obama puts it, there's got to be a way to get more "bang for your educational buck."

Higher ed, with some notable exceptions, was slow to realize how much its world was changing, the consequence of the political environment, economic forces and the potential of technology.

The message from Mr. Obama and Mr. Rubio is pretty clear: If you don't fix this, prepare for more government meddling.


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