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Colleges and universities shouldn’t wait for a federal mandate to deliver better value

Thousands of borrowers are likely to have their federal student loan debt erased after an agreement was reached Wednesday as part of a proposed class-action settlement. (Getty)

The Supreme Court is poised to consider President Biden’s student loan cancellation plan next week. No matter the decision, the U.S. higher education system is at an indisputable breaking point, and its future hinges on what the government and postsecondary institutions do next.

Today’s students increasingly question the value they are getting from their education. Completion rates remain stagnant, taxpayer dollars continue to flow to schools, even those with abysmal outcomes, colleges too often leave their students worse off than before they started — and millions of dollars of student debt remain.

To ensure all learners have access to high-quality degree pathways and are supported to graduation, issues of ever-increasing costs, widening relevancy gaps in relation to work, declining enrollment, and diverging equity must be top of mind for the Department of Education and the 118th Congress. And institutions shouldn’t wait for a federal mandate — they should be using every tool at their disposal to hold themselves accountable for providing value to students right now.

For its part, the Biden administration has proposed several meaningful actions to increase quality and strengthen accountability in higher education. The Education Department is poised to release a new gainful employment regulation this spring, which is key to ensuring that career education programs equip their graduates with the skills to get in-demand jobs and increase their earning potential. And the department recently issued a public request for information on how it can identify and increase transparency around low-financial-value college programs that simply aren’t paying off for students and taxpayers. Actions like these are notable amidst pending department proposals to cancel large swaths of student debt and institute new income-driven repayment plans that some analysts suggest could actually increase the risk of predatory institutions charging more in tuition and students taking on more debt.

But no policy discussion can avoid engaging with the completion crisis in American higher education. Nationwide, only six in 10 students who enter a bachelor’s degree program graduate within six years, and completion rates are lower for the most vulnerable students. Those who drop out of college are three times more likely to default on their student loans. These are unacceptable outcomes for a system propped up by more than $100 billion in annual federal investment alone.

Last year, Congress took laudable first steps to acknowledge the importance of not only getting students into college, but also getting them through, by establishing a postsecondary student success grant program to expand evidence-based initiatives for retaining and graduating more students. This year’s budget saw a ninefold increase in funding, now $45 million, for these grants. That’s a promising start — but it is still just a start. Greater government attention is needed to stem the crisis of noncompletion. Cost, credit loss, rigid delivery models and lack of support are all major factors in noncompletion that require a fundamental reexamination of policy frameworks and systems to ensure they are truly working for students.

Institutions of higher education are far from powerless in this equation. Yet, too often, institutions lose sight of how best to serve students, allocating resources towards programs and initiatives that don’t directly contribute to student success.

Colleges and universities can act to combat this crisis, too. In the absence of industry-standard or government-mandated accountability metrics, Western Governors University (WGU), for example, has developed its own key results to measure success toward its mission. These results track on-time completion, lifetime financial return for graduates, as well as equitable access and attainment — outcomes that loom large for today’s learners.

Commitment to pre-defined success metrics ensures all university decision-making is student-centered. This means reviewing progress toward completion on a weekly basis, enabling leadership to reflect on underlying causes when fewer students graduate than planned and address those causes in a timely manner. Maximizing lifetime financial return for graduates ensures pricing is in line with the value a program is expected to deliver for students and promotes alignment with workforce needs. And dedication to equitable access and attainment counteracts the moral hazard of precluding access to achieve (false) success.

Orienting operations to focus on student outcomes is a critical first step, but institutions can also round out their definition of success by tracking experiential data, including faculty and mentor support, relevancy of learning to work, graduates’ feelings of preparedness for the real world, their engagement at work, and their overall well-being. WGU, for instance, partners with Gallup to track and report such data, providing a more holistic picture of the value the university is delivering to students beyond financial return and completion.

We’ve got a lot of fixing to do to repair higher education, and that’s incumbent on all of us. Federal action is moving in the right direction, and while policymakers keep their foot on the gas, colleges and universities shouldn’t wait for a mandate to drive better and more equitable results for their students today.

Scott Pulsipher is the president of Western Governors University.

Michelle Dimino is deputy director of education at Third Way.

Tags Biden College Education Employment Higher education Student debt University

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