To support today's students, Congress must strengthen oversight of colleges
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It’s time to demand more from our nation’s colleges and universities. For the forty years I served in Congress, I fought to make college more accessible and more affordable for low-income students, including increasing the Pell Grant scholarship to its highest level in history, improving the work-study program, and lowering interest rates on student loans. As a result, our nation’s colleges and universities receive more than $120 billion annually in federal support so that all deserving students can earn a higher education degree. But nearly half of all students who start college fail to complete a degree. More shocking still, students who start college but don’t finish are three times as likely to default on their student loans. And there are enough colleges living off the federal dime without providing sufficient value to students and families that it could rightly be called a scandal.

Our country has changed substantially over the last decade, and higher education is no exception. Today, 26 percent of students are parents, 60 percent work while in college, and around 25 percent take at least one college course online—making the needs of today’s students very different than in years past.

Despite these major demographic changes, Congress has left the largest piece of federal legislation overseeing higher education—the Higher Education Act (HEA)—essentially untouched since I last worked to rewrite it as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee a decade ago. As Congress considers reauthorizing HEA for today’s students, it needs to usher in a new era of strong federal oversight over higher education.

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One place ripe for improvements is our accreditation system, which serves as a “watchdog” for the more than 5,000 institutions currently eligible to receive Title IV federal student aid. Currently, there are around 100 accredited institutions whose graduation rates are below 25 percent, and another 680 accredited institutions where most students won’t be able to pay down their loans or earn more than the average high school graduate after leaving school. However, the nation’s accreditation laws make no discernment between an institution that graduates 10 percent of its students and one that graduates 90 percent. Under current law, both can be fully accredited and provide their students access to federal student loans and grants. Dangerously, this means potential students and their families are signaled by the accreditation system that both of these institutions serve students well enough to receive federal funds.

Another shortcoming of today’s system is a lack of transparency and consistency across accreditors. Today, there is no standardized way to talk about the kinds of outcomes students expect from higher education, like graduation rates or whether students are employed after finishing, making it difficult for consumers to comparison shop the schools likely to help them succeed or measure how an institution is evaluating the quality of its schools.

The College Affordability Act (CAA), recently introduced by House Democrats under the leadership of Education and Labor Chairman Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottHoyer: Democratic chairmen trying to bridge divide on surprise medical bills To support today's students, Congress must strengthen oversight of colleges Democratic lawmaker tears into DeVos: You're 'out to destroy public education' MORE (D-Va.), takes an important step in the right direction toward improving our outdated accreditation system to better meet the needs of today’s students. This includes a number of changes that Congress and accreditors can take to realign our system to focus on high-quality student outcomes, so students taking on debt can earn quality degrees and certificates that will deliver a return on investment.

Specifically, the CAA would create a working group made up of accreditors, institutions, and student advocates to help establish a common glossary of outcome measures and definitions for three categories: completion, progress toward completion, and workforce participation.

For each measure the accreditor uses from the glossary, the CAA would require accreditors to set performance benchmarks around those measures to evaluate the effectiveness of the institutions they oversee. This process would provide a more apples-to-apples comparison of institutions and would be a better indicator of whether colleges are providing quality degrees; it would also outline some much-needed federal bottom lines around whether or not a school is worthy of taxpayer dollars.

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But the federal government wouldn’t and shouldn’t be singularly making these decisions alone. Instead, the bill ensures that the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)—an advisory body made up of stakeholders across the higher education system that approves the accreditors—would regularly evaluate the effectiveness of both the measures and performance benchmarks each accreditor sets and then compare each accreditor’s measures and benchmarks to their peer institutions. And, importantly, the CAA would lift the veil of obscurity around this whole process by requiring these reviews to be publicly posted on accreditors’ websites so that consumers of the higher education system—including students and policymakers—can easily access this information.

I know just how difficult it can be to shake up the status quo and pass comprehensive legislation that will positively affect the lives of millions of Americans. But any difficulty Congress may face in getting this bill across the finish line pales in comparison to the difficulty today’s students will continue to face as a result of inaction. There is an urgent need to reform a system designed for yesteryear. Congress must improve oversight to give today’s students the best chance possible toward earning meaningful credentials necessary to succeed in our modern economy, and today’s students can no longer wait.

George MillerGeorge MillerTo support today's students, Congress must strengthen oversight of colleges Pelosi names new chief of staff Dem duo poses test for Trump, GOP MORE, a Democrat from California, served in Congress for 40 years and served as chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor from 2007-2011. He is senior education advisor with the educational publishing and technology company Cengage and a board member of Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan advocacy organization.