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COLUMN-How to fix higher education

Source: Reuters - Tue, 18 Mar 2014 14:26 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Reihan Salam

March 18 (Reuters) - America's elite higher education institutions are the envy of the world. Foreign students flock to the oldest and wealthiest U.S. research universities to take advantage of resources that are unparalleled, thanks to the deep pockets of many centuries' worth of captains of industry.

Yet when we consider the post-secondary institutions that educate the typical American high school grad, we see a very different picture. While the share of Americans who enroll in higher education has grown substantially in recent decades, graduation rates have been stagnant.

Community colleges promise an affordable education to millions of students, but they often fail to offer the courses students need to complete a degree in a reasonable amount of time. Public colleges and universities churn out graduates who are forced to take jobs that don't actually require a four-year post-secondary education. Most private non-profits do the same, and they're also notorious for charging obscene tuition that their graduates can scarcely afford. And private for-profits, which have grown enormously by taking on some of the hardest-to-accommodate students, stand accused of loading up their students with debt without offering them marketable skills.

It is hard not to sympathize with the Obama administration, which last week launched a new effort to ensure that career training programs are meeting the needs of their students. The problem with the new White House push, however, is that it focuses on a too-narrow aspect of America's higher education crisis: about 8,000 vocational programs at community colleges, state universities, and for-profit colleges, which train students in subjects like business administration, nursing and automotive repair.

The basic problem that the Obama administration hopes to tackle is that while a large and growing number of students enroll in vocational post-secondary schools, most of whom make use of federal grant aid and subsidized loans to meet the cost of tuition, an alarmingly high share of them are failing to find well-paying jobs. And students who can't find well-paying jobs struggle to meet the cost of servicing their loans, let alone pay them off.

The Department of Education plans to identify vocational programs that leave their average graduate paying a high share of their earnings in loan payments (8 percent or more of total earnings, 20 percent or more of discretionary earnings) as well as those with a high average loan default rate (of 30 percent or more). Programs that cross these red lines in two out of three years will lose the right to offer their students federal financial aid.

Curbing the abuses of this sector could do some good. But career training programs represent a small subset of the higher education universe. If we take a somewhat wider view, it seems pretty puzzling that, say, business or engineering majors at four-year colleges and universities aren't being treated as enrollees in vocational programs.

Why not? Given the epidemic of underemployment among recent college graduates, it might make sense to apply the same standard to all post-secondary institutions, not just those that are explicitly labeled career training colleges.

Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the trade association that represents the for-profit higher education sector, observes in a tart press release that "if the regulation were applied to all of higher education, programs like a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a law degree from George Washington University Law School and a bachelor's degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University, would all be penalized."

My reply to Gunderson would be that, well, yes, let's penalize these programs too. It makes perfect sense to establish a regulatory floor to protect consumers from the least effective post-secondary programs, whether they're at vocational schools or standard-issue colleges and universities.

Even if we denied federal financial aid dollars to these programs, however, we'd still have students in need of post-secondary education options. The for-profit higher education sector often emphasizes that it serves students that community colleges and private nonprofits fail to reach, like working adults who need flexible schedules. It could be that wiping out the low-performing vocational schools will allow a new wave of high-performing vocational schools to flourish. Yet it's also possible that vocational schools will stay on the right side of the new regulations by refusing to take on challenging students.

There are two really deep problems that plague U.S. higher education. The first is the absence of useful and reliable data that students and parents can use to evaluate programs of all kinds. In "College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark," Amy Laitinen and Clare McCann of the New America Foundation recount how the private nonprofit higher education lobby has fought against efforts to create a federal student unit record system.

As obscure as this sounds, the lack of such a system makes it extremely difficult for higher education consumers to answer basic questions like which schools do the best job of preparing their graduates for the workforce and which leave their students drowning in debt. Making this data easily accessible would force the weakest performing schools to either change their ways or face steep enrollment declines. But if the students who turn away from the bottom of the barrel have nowhere else to go, as the best schools have only so many seats, we'll still find ourselves in a bind.

This leads us to the second problem. While transparency would help expose the worst schools, it won't necessarily improve the average quality of America's higher education institutions. It's true that in a world of greater transparency, schools would be more likely to offer a high-quality education at an affordable cost, but that's not enough.

Andrew Kelly of the conservative American Enterprise Institute has emphasized that we need a supply-side strategy designed to increase the availability of affordable, high-quality college opportunities. This could mean making it easier for new schools to gain accreditation, or incentivizing existing high-quality schools to become more inclusive rather than more selective. Over time, increasing the supply of affordable, high-quality college opportunities will raise the average quality of higher education by driving the worst schools out of business and forcing the best schools to continually raise the bar.

By combining these strategies - greater transparency plus more entry of good schools and exit of bad schools - we can see to it that our entire higher education sector, and not just the elite slice at the top, is one that we can be proud of. That change advances upward mobility for all. (Reihan Salam)

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