Our Universities: Accountability to Students

Universities and lenders must be more transparent regarding costs, opportunities, and likelihoods of success to students.

“Greater personal choice, individually tailored services, stronger local accountability, greater efficiency – these are all central to the new direction of travel we have set for our public services.”

John Hutton, British Labor Party

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Consternation over a plan by President Obama to develop a rating system for colleges persists. Nobody likes it. It used to be said of leaders that, “If everybody is mad at you, you are probably doing something right.”  I’m not sure that’s true, but “everybody’s” mad to be sure.  According to an Inside HigherEd post last week by Michael Stratford, the private colleges are against it; Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California System doesn’t like it; for-profit colleges are miffed, and the community colleges are anxious. Everybody’s mad for different reasons but with a common denominator — change.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) floated a counter proposal to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s ambitious project. The thrust of the APLU plan is outcomes-based measures:  Report cards on student progress, completion, loan repayment and default rates, average net price by income level, unemployment rates, and enrollments in advanced degree programs. These measures are inarguable. Costs and benefits should be clear before students consign themselves to lives of debt.

One could ask, “What is wrong with the available rating systems that balance various aspects of higher education?” College Preeminence Admissions Index (CPAI), Council for Aid to Education, The Daily Beast’s Guide to the Best Colleges, Forbes College Rankings, The Princeton Review Dream Colleges, The Top American Research Universities, TrendTopper MediaBuzz College Guide, U.S. News & World Report College and University Rankings, United States National Research Council Rankings, Washington Monthly National Universities Rankings, “What will they Learn?,” Report – American Council of Trustees and Alumni, to name just a few.  Awash in analysis, yet elected officials, lenders, universities, and students/families overlook available insight or feign ignorance.

Maybe Secretary Duncan and President Obama should make existing analysis readily available – an accessible and transparent website might work but that’s not always a straightforward endeavor.

A government rating of postsecondary institutional performance, thereby “valuing” one institution over another, is challenging.  The problem is akin to the concerns of collusion voiced by President Eisenhower in his last public address to the American people, now known as The Military-Industrial Complex SpeechToo much money, too much power, too much influence. He shared his disquiet that ambition and greed coupled with the pervasive size and weight of the armaments enterprise would dwarf other national interests.  He said, “The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”  His trepidation was that while singularly important, the military-industrial dominance of our national attention might create unforeseen problems.

I am not going to equate the issues of national defense with education, but they have some parallels. For one, fear feeds both:  In the first case, fear of lost freedom and sovereignty; in the second, fear of ignorance and shadows of poverty. Propulsion for the burden of a trillion dollars of student debt; more mind-boggling levels of institutional debt; lives shackled by loan payment books for degrees that will not produce income, is fear: Fear fomented by the complex of universities, lenders, and elected leaders who promise formal education of any kind, in any subject, guarantees success and therefore is good.

History teaches if we listen.

Initially the Service Men’s Readjustment Act of 1944, we know it as the G.I. Bill, made provisions for funding to universities in support of veteran study through tuition, fee, and housing costs. A 1950 House Select Committee uncovered so many examples of universities hungry for the veterans market niche and overcharging the federal government that it was decided to provide funding directly to veterans and let them vote with their feet informed by their heads in the public arena — a voting booth with no levers, punch cards, or boundaries.

Admittedly tenuous similarities exist.  Government funds through appropriations and subsidized loans with predetermined interest rates no matter who applies where, to study what, encourages slothfulness in a publicly stimulated and guaranteed industry, military or education.  Ike’s fears were valid in the armaments industry and, with qualification, prophetic in higher education.

Federal oversight of rating higher education providers is politically charged.  The loan industry should set lending policies and interest rates based on a borrower’s ability to repay, the lender’s ability to assume risk; both in concert with the quality of the product or service sought: like buying a house.  Such an approach requires more from everyone, student/family, institution, and lenders — cold daylight and unremitting analysis and commitment.

Our universities should lead appraisal forthrightly, as a matter of honor, with transparency to benefit students. Otherwise universities become rickety political machines rather than engines of ability and hope.

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