Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech Monday American colleges need to be more “accountable” for how their students perform. The speech suggests an effort by the Obama administration in its waning days to expect more of colleges receiving student loans, and possibly punish those that aren’t measuring up.
“Government, at both the federal and state level, along with accreditors and Congress, need to flip the current incentives in higher education,” Duncan said in a speech at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Today, only students, families and taxpayers lose when students don’t succeed– that makes no sense. Institutions must be held accountable when they get paid by students and taxpayers but fail to deliver a quality education.”
Duncan’s statement is largely accurate. Under current student loan policies, taxpayers and student borrowers assume virtually all risk. A student risks being unable to pay off the loans used to finance their education, while the government takes the hit if a borrower is unable to pay. Colleges, though, take almost no risk, and are largely not penalized if their students end up dropping out or prove unable to finance their debts.
Duncan says that needs to change, meaning colleges may have to pay the price (for example, by losing access to federal loans) if their students aren’t adequately succeeding.
“We must shift incentives at every level to focus on student success, not just access. When students win, everyone wins,” said Duncan. “When they lose every part of the system should share responsibility.”
In particular, Duncan said states need to work to improve college completion rates. Students who fail to graduate are those most hurt by rising tuition, he said, because they can wind up simultaneously carrying thousands in debt while being unable to get a job that will pay it off.
Duncan also criticized accreditors for failing to adequately police the quality of college programs. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, which Duncan cited in his speech, found that college accreditors rarely sanction programs for their academic performance, allowing schools with single-digit graduation rates and high rates of student loan default to remain eligible for millions in student loans student loans.
“For many accreditors, student outcomes are way down the priority list,” said Duncan.”We need to build a system in which what student learning, graduation and going on to get good jobs count most.”
During his second term, President Barack Obama has sought to create a federal college rating system that would grade schools based on factors like graduates rates and how much debt students accumulate. But that rating system has run into fierce opposition that caused the administration to drastically water it down. Duncan’s speech, though, signaled that the administration has not given up yet, and may make one last push to hold colleges more accountable before passing the baton to the next president.
Duncan also spoke with reporters Monday, and pushed back against a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that suggested the federal government deserved much of the blame for rising tuition rates, and by extension rising debt loads. (RELATED: Feds Discover Their Own Aid Is To Blame For Rising Tuition)
“If you look at historical data – we’ve looked at this question very closely – that does quite not seem to be case,” Duncan said, according to The Washington Examiner.