Flexibility and mission-driven accountability

Diane Auer Jones, principal deputy under secretary at the U.S. Education Department, at the 2020 Community College Legislative Summit in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

The U.S. Education Department (ED) will continue to emphasize flexibility with accountability in its efforts to help higher education institutions and states better serve students, according to a top department official.

Speaking at the 2020 Community College National Legislative Summit on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Diane Auer Jones, ED’s principal deputy under secretary, highlighted the Trump administration’s efforts over the past year to provide such flexibility, which ranged from revamping federal accreditation rules to testing new ways to leverage work-based learning in programs such as the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program. She also addressed some of the policy reasoning behind the president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, which was released on Monday.

ED seeks to continue to move away from its previous “one size fits all” approach in gauging how well colleges serve their students, Auer Jones said. Too often, determining college success is based on the number of students a college graduates instead of basing success on colleges’ and students’ goals, including community service and transfers to four-year colleges, she said.

Auer Jones noted that when she worked at the Community College of Baltimore County at the beginning of her career, one of the goals of the college was to serve as the cardiac rehabilitation center for seniors in the county.

“That was a pretty big responsibility, and yet when we look at outcome measures, the only thing that gets counted for community colleges today is how many people graduate. That’s just not fair,” she told attendees of NLS, which is sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges.

She added that the department’s revised College Scorecard now includes data on student transfers, which more accurately captures colleges’ work.

Alternative approaches

Different institutions have different missions, whether the college is faith-based, research-based or a community college, Auer Jones said. ED wants to ensure that institutions are held accountable, but it doesn’t want to infringe on its missions, she said. For example, Auer Jones said that she regularly hears from community college presidents about their successful occupational programs, but because of burdensome governance rules, the programs are on the noncredit side.

In its final accreditation regulations, ED has said it is permissible to have multiple governance models, according to Auer Jones. That means a college can have a traditional faculty governance model for its philosophy and liberal arts programs, but the college also can have a different governance model for occupational-based programs.

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Accreditors also may need alternative standards to evaluate colleges’ progress in meeting their missions, she said. For example, vocationally focused programs and rural community colleges often have difficulty finding potential instructors who have doctorates.

“We understand that in many of your programs it’s not the terminal degree that matters but the experience the person brings,” Auer Jones said.

FWS, Second Chance Pell grants

ED plans in the next few weeks to announce the colleges selected to participate in its pilot program for the Federal Work Study (FWS) program. Some 220 colleges applied to participate in the pilot, which lifts some federal requirements and aims to provide work-based learning that’s more closely aligned with students’ studies.

Participating colleges will be able to use their FWS funds to pay for certain student-based learning, such as clinical rotations and student teaching, Auer Jones said.

“If we think work-based learning is an important part of the curriculum, … why on earth would we deny a student an opportunity to get paid for that work?” she said.

ED is developing webinars on how to implement the FWS experimental sites.

The department also will soon announce participants in the next round of its Second Chance Pell program, which allows certain inmates to use Pell grants to pay for their postsecondary education. ED is waiting to see how much Pell funding it will receive for the program before selecting the participating colleges, Auer Jones said, adding that it received about 110 applications.

If ED cannot provide awards to all applicants, it may do so in stages, selecting one group of colleges to receive funding this year and another group next year, she said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.