NATIONAL REVIEW: To Improve Higher Education, Scale Back Federal Involvement

Career College Central Summary:

  • America’s colleges and universities are terribly inefficient and excessively expensive, foster relatively little learning and ability to think critically, and turn out too many graduates who end up underemployed. These and related problems have grown sharply in the half century since the Higher Education Act of 1965 heralded a major expansion of the federal role in higher education, but some mildly hopeful signs are now emanating from Capitol Hill. In three papers issued by his staff, Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and a former university president himself, has indicated that he wants to do potentially three useful things as the Higher Education Act comes up for another reauthorization.
  • First, he seems to embrace the idea that colleges should have “skin in the game”: They should face financial consequences for admitting, and then failing to graduate, students who default on loans and have marginal educational backgrounds indicating that they were clearly ill prepared for truly higher education. 
  • Second, he views the accreditation system as broken and seems to agree that the current binary approach — you either are accredited or are not — needs reform. 
  • Third, he wants to change the federal data system, potentially providing consumers with some useful information, such as what the graduates of XYZ University earn, say, two years after graduation. I suspect that the Department of Education can tell you how many Hispanic female anthropology professors there are in Georgia but that it is clueless whether students have learned anything in college or how graduates of each college fare in labor markets. I am reasonably certain that U.S. News, Forbes, and other magazines that rank colleges get far more hits on their websites than does the taxpayer-funded U.S. Department of Education College Navigator website. (Full disclosure: My research organization does the rankings for Forbes.)
  • Federal attempts to deal with these and other pathologies have been largely unsuccessful. The Spellings Commission (2005–06) made a few modestly constructive proposals, but they went nowhere. Congressional action in the past decade has been mostly counterproductive. Three examples: Congress generally expanded the dysfunctional federal student-loan system while mostly removing private financial-sector involvement. Congress has forbidden (on bogus privacy-concern grounds) federal data collection that could provide better measures of institutional performance. And it has acquiesced in Obama-administration rules leading to serious violations of due process for students accused of inappropriate sexual conduct. 
  • You don’t have to go far to illustrate the points that Senator Alexander seems to be making. It is 5.3 miles from the U.S. Capitol to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). Federal-government data suggest that only 5.7 percent of full-time students at UDC graduate in four years at this fully accredited school, and that well over 18 percent of borrowers default on their loans within three years, considerably above the already-high national average of 13.7 percent. Why does UDC receive the same level of accreditation as, say, nearby Georgetown or Johns Hopkins? Shouldn’t a school with such high levels of loan default face some negative consequences? After all, its admission decisions and instructional efforts contribute to the default problem burdening taxpayers. And why can’t the feds, whose Social Security Administration and IRS collect vast amounts of income data, tell us whether the relatively few graduating from UDC in fact typically end up making a decent living?

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