Accountability at the program level

Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, pauses for a reporter's question at the Capitol in Washington. (Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

It may be time to look at the successes of individual programs rather than just a college’s overall rating when it comes to accountability, according to the chairman of the Senate committee working to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA).

“Evaluating individual programs rather than applying a blanket sanction to a college that has both excellent and failing programs would help inform students’ choices and spend federal dollars more responsibility,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) said at a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on accountability, the latest in a series held by the committee focusing on HEA elements.

Committee members also floated the idea of a hybrid accountability model that would include measures for both the institution and individual programs. But several lawmakers were leery of mandating more reporting requirements of colleges, who already have to send reports to the federal and state governments and accreditors.

The committee this week plans to release staff white papers on accountability, Alexander said, similar to a series of white papers it released in 2015 on accreditation, risk-sharing and consumer information.

Better consumer information

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, who was among the witnesses at the hearing, advocated for more transparency and performance standards at the program level. Students and their families want basic information that should be easy to get: how much a program costs, related job prospects after graduation, earning potential and career outlook.

“As a political matter, it seems to me it’s worth the trade to get rid of a lot of the other data collection we do now and just have four [or] five things that we need instead of adding more and more and more data into the equation,” he said. “But that’s a complicated bargain to put on a piece of paper.”

The current system is data rich but information poor, agreed Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research for the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “As a result, we cannot answer many basic questions about college access, success, prices and post-college outcomes,” she said.

Voight said she supported the bipartisan College Transparency Act that would create a secure, privacy-protected, student-level data network. It would provide the framework to publicly report aggregated institution and program-level outcomes to inform student, policymaker and institutional decisions, she said. It would include data on all students, not just those who receive federal student aid.

“Counting all students is necessary to accurately reflect institution and program outcomes and to evaluate equity,” she said.

Including grant recipients

Currently, the only federal accountability measure applied to colleges is the student loan default rate. Accountability measures could extend to federal grant aid, said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Some policy advocates have encouraged more accountability based on loan payments — such as risk sharing and repayment rates — but ignore Pell grants, which annually provides $28 billion in aid, he said. The measure could be based on a grant-to-income ratio or total-aid-to-income ratio, Delisle said.

The committee, which plans to release its HEA reauthorization legislation in early spring, will hold another HEA hearing on February 6 to look at improving college affordability.

Expanding competency-based education

About the Author

Daily Staff
CCDaily is published by the American Association of Community Colleges.