Once thought to be a political longshot, stiffer oversight of higher education is getting a chorus of support from inside the Beltway in response to ballooning student debt and stagnant graduation rates.
“People have rightly been reluctant to put on the table a tough accountability system because getting it wrong involves a lot of political heartache and downside,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D‑Conn.) last week at an event held by the Washington, D.C. think tank Third Way.
But Murphy said he and others in Congress are becoming increasingly concerned that students are graduating with a degree that isn’t worth anything — and the federal government isn’t holding colleges responsible.
A new poll released by Third Way shows college administrators share some of those concerns, which could open up new opportunities for political negotiation and expanding student protections.
For years, legislators have assumed schools would oppose greater accountability. Many also worried about the fallout if a local college or university didn’t measure up to federal quality standards. However, the administrators interviewed by Third Way and Global Strategy Group, a research firm, overwhelmingly believe that institutions have a responsibility to ensure most students who enroll graduate.
The think tank spoke to 211 administrators at schools across the country. More than 70 percent said there should be a federal policy that requires college accreditors to consider student outcomes such as graduation rates, loan repayment rates, and post-college employment when reviewing institutions.
Number of college administrators surveyed by Third Way who say there should be a federal policy that requires college accreditors to consider student outcomes when reviewing institutions.
Right now, accreditors look at many factors, but a number of them, including the quality of buildings on campus and the research published by faculty, aren’t directly related to student success. Murphy sees that as a big problem.
He said he wants to redesign the regulatory structure around outcomes. He also wants legislators to get serious about intervening when schools fail students and to support the creation of focused, less expensive degrees that provide a return on investment.
“The nontraditional student is the traditional student today,” he said.
Data published by Third Way days before Murphy spoke shows that the country’s higher education system has made little progress in adjusting to changing student demographics, and colleges that enroll high numbers of low-income and nontraditional students are still failing to help them graduate.
More than half of students who attended a two-year college earn less than the average high school graduate. About 40 percent of students who attended a four-year for-profit institution are also struggling to make ends meet.
The nontraditional student is the traditional student today.Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
The administrators surveyed by Third Way said they support sanctions for schools that leave a majority of students with debt but no degree, including prohibiting institutions from accessing federal financial aid if their graduation rate is less than 15 percent.
Amid talk of stronger oversight, Murphy stressed that regulatory reforms wouldn’t work unless there are also programs and tools in place to help schools improve.
Many schools “have a lot of people who show up to work each day trying to help students succeed,” he said. “These institutions, they are grounded, they are rooted in the community.”
The goal should be to create a better higher education sector and in the long-run, a stronger, more skilled workforce.
“We have an outcomes crisis in higher ed today,” he said. “Too many kids aren’t graduating. Too many kids are graduating with degrees that don’t help them pay the bills. This crisis isn’t on the students — it’s on us.”