Three ways to hold colleges and universities accountable

'The United States can’t afford the status quo in higher education'

The federal government needs to take new steps to hold colleges and universities accountable for student success, write Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler—respectively president and SVP for policy of Third Way, a centrist think tank—in the New York Times

Colleges and universities face little regulation, the pair argues, despite receiving $126 billion in tuition financing from the federal government last school year.

Only when schools report extremely high student-loan default rates—higher than 30%, for example—are they considered ineligible to accept federal student loans or Pell Grants. Last year, just 21 out of 6,000 institutions nationwide were threatened with that measure.

Additionally, unlike in K-12 where No Child Left Behind regulates teachers, professors receive little training and frequently earn tenure based on research—not instruction skills.

Only 20% of faculty members use innovative classroom methods, according to a recent Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation study—a figure Cowan and Kessler link to the failure of nearly half of college students to demonstrate improvement in writing, critical thinking, and complex reasoning after two years, as reported in a sample study of about 2,300 students in "Academically Adrift."

"The United States can’t afford the status quo in higher education," the pair argues.

To reform higher education and provide more stringent oversight, the federal government needs to take three steps, write Cowan and Kessler.

1. Require colleges and universities receiving federal aid to create a plan by 2020 for measuring student learning, improving instruction quality, and training professors in teaching methods. Motivate institutions to make the change by doubling the current funding for postsecondary education improvement grants—currently 24 cents for each $100 in research grants—and allowing institutions to compete for the funds.

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2. Increase transparency via legislation that ensures two- and four-year institutions in both the for- and non-profit sectors release data on alumni salary levels and graduation rates for students by income, race, gender, and major. With this information, students and parents will be able to make more informed decisions, rather than basing their choice of where to attend on athletic and amenities.

3. Hold colleges responsible for a part of student-loan defaults—Cowen and Kessler suggest 5% of the annual principal and interest. The ease of attaining loans allows higher education tuition to spiral upwards, they argue, because "there is always a federal loan to make up the difference between price and aid." Linking the two would force out of business institutions that continually enroll students and fail to support them to graduation (Cowan/Kessler, New York Times, 2/19).

The takeaway: To hold colleges and universities accountable for student success, the federal government needs to increase funding for innovative instruction grants, make schools responsible for part of their students' loan defaults, and pass transparency legislation, argue two policy experts in the New York Times.

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