Accountability in Higher Education

The original name of this blog was Access With Success. Since its founding 5 years ago, it has drawn attention to two key education issues: access to education for all qualified students and successful outcomes from education. On July 27, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke about the same two issues at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Mr. Duncan’s remarks identified three needed shifts in our attention to higher education: a focus on outcomes, needed innovation as well as student debt and the costs of higher education.

Too little attention has been paid to higher education’s outcomes. The issues of accountability get lost in the attention to the cost of college and the level of public debt, despite their very significance. Greater attention has to be paid to accountability. That is why I wrote, “Just graduating is not enough” in a recent blog. I wrote about the experience of our administrative team in bringing about accountability with transparent information on students’ performance at Colorado State University. Too few US colleges have adopted and maintained what we instituted there almost a decade ago.

However, there are changes that we can make in the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was originated in 1965 and last reauthorized in 2008. Those changes can address the need for greater accountability. They include publishing data like those envisioned in the College Portrait on the Department of Education’s website. Parents and prospective students deserve information about college persistence; graduation rates; and postgraduate employment, education and career choice. This information makes good consumer sense.

The needed changes to the Higher Education Act also extend to accrediting bodies. Mr. Duncan observes in his remarks that regional accrediting bodies pay little attention to outcomes and accountability. He is mostly right. Years ago I served on a site review team of a major research university up for its periodic regional accreditation review. Another team member and I were very concerned with whether the university’s honors program was delivering a quality education. We had met the young people. They were enthusiastic about getting an education, and they appeared highly intelligent. They deserved more than what they said they were getting. Yet, the site review team’s report, led by one of the accrediting body staff, paid little attention to our concerns about outcomes. There are needed changes to higher education accreditation, including more streamlined processes, requirements for evaluation of a college’s outcomes, and encouragement for innovation in light of the financial challenges especially for small schools.

The Department of Education cannot take on the entire burden for accountability. Many don’t want it involved at all. I believe they are wrong about limiting too severely the Department’s involvement. There is a role for the US Department of Education. There is also a role for states and the institutions, themselves. States can take action now to demand outcome rather than input data from state schools. They can also take action to make that information publicly available in accessible websites. Private and proprietary institutions can do the same.

Mr. Duncan’s remarks address all of higher education, not just for-profit education. We have needed this widespread focus on all of higher education. I applaud what he has done. I hope his remarks receive widespread attention and debate.

The President on Education – Choice and Vouchers

In his State of the Union address, President Obama emphasized the role of education in our economic recovery.  It is education that gives the middle class opportunity for participation in our economy.  The President is right.  Education’s potential for producing that outcome depends, however, upon two fundamental elements that underlie his thesis.  The first is market-based choice in education and the second is the money necessary for the children of working class parents.

A local friend of mine produces annually a map of high- and low-scoring school districts from his company, Maps & Facts, Unlimited.  The map is one of my favorites; it uses red for high scoring districts and blue for those that yield low or failing scores on standardized tests.  There is little surprise in the location of the red and blue on the map.  The top-scoring school districts are those with the highest per capita income where the best-educated parents live.

America’s promise of opportunity is belied by the increasingly differential opportunity that our children have based on their parents’ education and income.  If America is to make good on its promise – and sustain its economic prowess – change is essential.  Like their wealthier counterparts, poor children must have access to quality education. The President is right.

What is essential, however, is the means to educational access.  Already the President is making clear that parents deserve choice.  He did so via the Department of Education’s new College Scorecard that reveals important data about costs of higher education.  But that same commitment to giving students and their parents a choice should be extended to K-12 education as well.  Allowing more charter schools and providing students with vouchers makes available to working class parents what wealthier parents and their children already have – choice and the means to pay for it.

All of America’s citizens deserve educational opportunity.  Education drives economic growth along with market-based technological innovation.  Making education available to all, however, is the challenge.

For too long we have been reticent to let the market and market information drive educational choice.  The Department of Education’s website is a step in the right direction.  For too long we have assumed that poor children must accept only their local school.  And that local school may not be the best choice for some children from less wealthy households anymore than it is for some children from the wealthiest.  Vouchers give to the poor what the wealthy have long had – the means to that choice.  Let’s look for more action from Washington that encourages states and local school districts to act in favor of open enrollment opportunity and the money to make choice real for all.

Increased Program Reviews at For-Profit Colleges

The Department of Education recently announced its intention to conduct an increased number of program reviews of student-aid operations in the coming year. These audit-like examinations are intended to ensure that students receive only the grants that they are entitled to and that institutions make the proper refunds. James Kvaal, Deputy Under Secretary of Education, announced that the department would be making these changes at last week’s Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities Summit – citing a focus on the nation’s deficit.

Addressing this issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported:

About 30 percent of all Pell Grant funds now go to students in the for-profit sector. Mr. Kvaal said colleges that educate such needy students with good programs are performing “a service to those students and a service to the country.” But he said then, and at several other times during his talk, that the department remained very concerned about for-profit colleges that rely on “deceptive and high-pressure sales tactics” to enroll students or leave them with unreasonable levels of student debt.

 

Mr. Kvaal is correct in praising the service that is provided by those schools that educate high proportions of working class students.  It is unfortunate that a few bad actors lead to increased and often unnecessary oversight and review for the many good actors among for-profit schools.  The result will be to divert the Department’s resources from improving access to higher education and success of students enrolled in our colleges and universities.

Increased access and students’ ultimate successful graduation with skills and knowledge should be the higher education focus of the department – for both the traditional sector of the higher education industry and the for-profit sector.  Mixed messages from the department are harming the industry and diverting us from critical improvements that are necessary in the traditional and for-profit sectors.  And this is occurring just when we especially need higher education’s contributions to an educated labor force and new technology to aid us in recovering from a too-lengthy recession.

DOE: Transforming America’s Education Powered by Technology

In furthering the importance of digital learning during National Distance Learning Week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a letter on the Department of Education’s “Transforming America’s Education Powered by Technology” initiative. The letter states:

Education is vital to America’s individual and collective economic growth and prosperity, and is necessary for our democracy to work. Once the global leader in college completion rates among young people, the United States currently ranks ninth out of 36 developed nations. President Obama has articulated a bold vision for the United States to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020, thereby regaining our leadership and ensuring America’s ability to compete in a global economy. To achieve this aggressive goal, we need to leverage the innovation and ingenuity this nation is known for to create programs and projects that every school can implement to succeed.

In light of the letter and the report, it is interesting to observe how many of the for-profit universities have become so sophisticated in their use of digital technology in order to educate larger numbers of students in increasingly sophisticated ways.  Indeed, they have the capital to make major advances in the use of digital technology in the near term as traditional universities continue to struggle with dismal prospects from states’ funding and still-devalued endowments.

What students should see is Secretary Duncan and the Department working to support the for-profit sector and this level of innovation and ingenuity from them.  Instead, we have watched the Department’s formulation of a set of rules, including the Gainful Employment rule, that have had the effect of limiting the education market’s innovation. The role of the for-profit sector of the higher education industry is not inimical to the goals of President Obama; it is a vehicle for realizing his goals of access, for implementing digital technology,  for enlarging access to higher education via online learning, and for increasing the adaptability of education to students’ capabilities to learn.

Department of Education Meetings with Stakeholders

Yesterday, the Department of Education announced in the Federal Register that it would hold meetings with individuals who filed comments on the gainful employment rule. Presentations will allow stakeholders to express their views but offer no new comments. With so many negative comments having been filed against this rule, it is encouraging that the Department of Education is taking the time to listen to those who dissented to the rule. The Federal Register states:

On July 26, 2010, the Department published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register proposing regulations for determining whether a postsecondary educational program provides training that leads to gainful employment in a recognized occupation and the conditions under which such a program would remain eligible for the student financial assistance programs authorized under title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA). Comments on the Department’s proposed regulations were due on September 9, 2010. The Department received over 90,000 comments from a wide range of stakeholders, including for-profit universities and colleges, community colleges, students, higher education associations, members of Congress, financial analysts, economists, and college and university faculty.

The Department appreciates the tremendous feedback, both positive and negative, that it received on the proposed regulations. The response from so many individuals and entities demonstrates how important the issues relating to gainful employment and this rulemaking are. To better understand parties’ comments and have an opportunity to interact with commenters, the Department will hold four public meeting sessions over the course of two days. During this time, commenters who have timely submitted comments on the NPRM may orally present their comments to a panel of Department representatives. Commenters also may have an opportunity to respond to questions from the Department about their comments.

Why are Short-Sellers Talking to the Department of Education?

On October 16, Fortune published an article about short-sellers in the for-profit education debate. The article discusses the roles that all parties – short-sellers, community college officials and third parties – have played in the lawsuit between Keiser University and Florida State College. With access to private emails, Fortune summarized the issues:

In the litigation, filed earlier this month, a privately held for-profit school called Keiser University sued a competing nonprofit public institution, Florida State College, for spreading “injurious falsehoods” about Keiser. In its formal complaint, Keiser — which is based in Fort Lauderdale and has 21,000 students seeking degrees ranging up to doctorates — claims FSC and two of its administrators aimed to “derail” the for-profit education sector through a “false and misleading campaign.” That campaign, according to the complaint, was executed in part through a “conspiracy” with both advocacy groups and short-sellers like Eisman, who famously made a hedge-fund fortune by anticipating the housing-market crash in 2008 and betting against subprime mortgages. Along with FSC, the two administrators — CEO Steven Wallace and vice president Susan Lehr — are named as defendants in the suit. Eisman and two other institutional investors, Gilchrist Berg and Antal Desai, are cited only as “co-conspirators.”

One of the more interesting aspects of this case – and the Fortune article – is this – Why are short-sellers and representatives of the Department of Education talking with one another?

The Department of Education wrote the Gainful Employment rule as an attempt to decrease student debt.  Since its was released, there has been significant debate over whether the Gainful Employment rule is in fact a path to addressing the issue of student debt.  But whatever the rule’s merits, discussions between short-sellers and representatives of the Department of Education give an appearance of impropriety.  There is the appearance that information is being preemptively shared with short-sellers and some others who have vested interests in opposition to for-profit schools.  Addressing student debt constructively while assuring access to higher education are laudable goals; the appearance of impropriety tarnishes those efforts.  We should really be focusing on the future of our students – and their access to higher education along with their successful graduation.

Balanced Reporting in the For-Profit Sector

With so much negative coverage of private sector colleges and universities in the news, this blog has focused on a balanced view of access and success in higher education.  Some would say that the media’s reporting could hardly be called “fair.”  However, two media opinion pieces this week bring some balance to the issues.  Of particular note is the recognition of several themes of this blog: (a) the need for more “seats” and the capacity of the private sector to provide increased access and (b) the biased focus of the Department of Education on only one sector of higher education while ignoring the need to improve public higher education.  See below for excerpts from these articles:

The Florida Times-Union: “For-profit, ‘career’ colleges play vital role in education

In a society where the haves and have-nots are on increasingly divergent trajectories, education remains a critical path to equal opportunity.

 

The traditional model of higher education – nonprofit public and private universities and community colleges – is limited in its ability to support this pathway.

 

In fact, the overcrowding problem is so acute at some community colleges that many students have stopped making progress toward a degree simply because they cannot get access to necessary courses.


Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: A well-laid plan to cripple needed for-profit colleges

Let’s be clear. We agree with the concern the department is trying to address. The idea is that students should graduate with jobs that pay enough to enable them to repay their loans. We’re committed to students’ successes, so we would like to be part of any solution that helps further their success.

 

So what has gone awry?

 

The Department of Education proposed a rule based on anecdotal information from 16 unnamed for-profit colleges that no one is allowed to examine for accuracy. Worse, the “study” does nothing to compare graduation outcomes or debt levels of our students with public or non-profit institutions serving similar student populations.