Seeking common ground on the Higher Education Act

Seeking common ground on the Higher Education Act
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In Washington today, amidst all the polarization and pyrotechnics, the very notion of finding points of agreement can seem daunting. Yet, even as Congress wrestles with the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it turns out that there is plenty of common ground to be found.

In recent years, debates about college access and affordability have moved to the center of the national stage. Democratic presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have rolled out ambitious free college plans while proposing to forgive most or all of the nation’s $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. Republicans have voiced lots of frustrations with higher education, but many fewer ideas on what might be done. All the while, college costs, debt burdens, loan defaults, and the fact that half of college students don’t finish their degree have convinced many on the left and the right that something needs to change.

Against that backdrop, scholars at AEI and Third Way last week released a report seeking to identify places where left and right could work together on the timely, pressing topic of higher education accountability. The report drew on a series of bipartisan convenings with a number of savvy Republicans and Democrats who are in the middle of Washington’s higher education debates. There was a striking degree of agreement on the challenges and on what needs to change, along with principled disagreement over how to get there.

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As Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, a key question is what — if anything — Washington should do in the way of transparency and accountability when it comes to cost, completion, performance, and loan defaults. In many ways, the discussion is reminiscent of efforts two decades ago to promote transparency and accountability in K-12 schooling.

But there are at least two key differences between that moment and ours. The first is the hyper-polarization of our time. The second is that the bipartisan cooperation of two decades ago yielded the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which is now regarded by lawmakers and advocates in both parties as a cautionary tale — chastening many who see value in demanding accountability from colleges that collectively receive over $120 billion each year in federal student aid programs.

Given all that, where are Republicans and Democrats on the same page — and where aren’t they?

When it comes to the challenges, as Third Way’s Lanae Erickson and I observed in the report, there’s bipartisan agreement “that too many students are ill-served by college, that colleges are insufficiently responsible for student outcomes, that too many students wind up with too much debt, that taxpayers cannot be confident that their dollars are being invested wisely, and that the higher education ‘market’ is in the grips of dysfunction.”

In that same vein, participants made clear that while debates about American higher education system tend to characterize higher education as a “market” — the truth is that it is anything but a healthy marketplace. There was bipartisan agreement that massive distortions caused by subsidies and public policy, especially a financial aid system that rewards colleges for enrolling students rather than graduating or educating them, are responsible for many of current frustrations. The upshot, we reported, is that “those on the right should not imagine that defending the status quo equates to defending a free market, and those on the left should not imagine that the manifold problems in higher education are the product of simply an unfettered market.”

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As to what should be done about all this, there was much less consensus. While there was wholehearted agreement that colleges should take more responsibility for their outcomes and that students should be attending institutions where they will actually acquire an education and earn a degree, Republicans were generally less comfortable than Democrats with the notion that Washington should try to manage that process with performance targets or federal interventions.

There was a shared awareness, anchored in K-12’s NCLB experience, of the dangers of relying too heavily on simple metrics or clumsy remedies. In the higher education context, there was particular concern that putting too much emphasis on college completion, for instance, would pummel colleges that serve nontraditional and disadvantaged students while encouraging institutions to dumb down expectations in order to graduate more students. But the college accountability hawks were optimistic that such concerns could be addressed by the use of multiple metrics and careful policy design, while the skeptics were dubious that Washington could or would be able to heed that advice.

Despite disagreements about whether to support the adoption of federal accountability, there was a consensus on the value of heightened transparency. Both left and right thought it appropriate that Washington, given its enormous investment in higher education and ownership of the lion’s share of data on higher education, should be doing much more to promote transparency in higher education. This may mean reporting on completion rates, loan repayment, and earnings by particular programs, as well as by college, and it may mean much more.

Whether policymakers can turn these points of agreement into legislation, given the shape of Washington today, is anyone’s guess.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and coauthor of “Mapping Out Common Ground on Accountability in Higher Education.”