Hearing focuses on ensuring value of higher education


The House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development held a hearing Thursday that centered on increasing the value of college for students and taxpayers.

Witnesses and committee members discussed the need for greater transparency in college pricing, the need to protect students from low-quality and high-cost college programs and helping to prevent student debt that’s burdensome to borrowers and taxpayers.

More accountability

On both sides of the aisle, committee members and witnesses agreed that a college education should lead to a good-paying job.

In opening the hearing, Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) acknowledged that “the purpose of college is to provide value to the consumer.” Now, though, he said there are “outdated measures of quality coupled with virtually zero transparency of value in the postsecondary market.”

“Students and taxpayers are left to navigate an expensive gamble with zero assurance their bet will pay off,” Owens said.

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, echoed that sentiment during his testimony.

“In higher education, what the government — and therefore the taxpayer — is paying for is enrollment of students. Not employment. Not learning. Not life outcomes,” Horn said. He suggested that federal policy should instead “focus on student outcomes and empower…schools to figure out the best ways to deliver value for students and taxpayers.”

Workforce Pell for proven programs

Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Georgia) said it’s important to “ensure that taxpayers are getting a quality return on their investments,” and ensure federal programs are “proven to get our students where they want to be” with good careers and a better quality of life.

McBath voiced support for expanding Pell Grant eligibility to short-term workforce training programs — or, workforce Pell — but added that “any expansion must be targeted to outcomes that are based in programs that are proven to work and that they’re efficient and effective for our students going forward.”

According to Stephanie Cellini, professor of public policy and public administration and of economics at George Washington University, postsecondary institutions should be held accountable for student outcomes with “meaningful consequences” for poor-performing programs.

Cellini said the gainful employment regulations “must be implemented” to ensure accountability. And federal data should be used to promote programs that lead to high earnings to help students make choices about college and majors.

Cellini also spoke positively about workforce Pell and echoed McBath in saying that legislation must ensure that “only the highest performing programs are eligible to participate.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) did caution against fully relying on wage data, however, to measure educational quality.

“Often times, there’s value that cannot be assessed or measured in higher education. If someone joins the Peace Corps or works for a non-profit, or becomes a teacher, they’re not necessarily going to have high earnings, but they’re doing incredibly valued work,” Bonamici said. “That does not mean they did not get a good education.”

Performance-based funding

Texas State Technical College (TSTC) was brought up as a good example of an institution that’s funding is based on providing high-value programs.

Andrew Gillen with the Texas Public Policy Foundation explained that TSTC is paid based on how well it prepares students for careers. Specifically, the college is paid a share of the increase in state taxes that their students generate for the state. And when programs at TSTC fail to increase students’ career prospects, they are quickly phased out.  

He added that there are other performance-based funding programs throughout the country that “sort of mimic” this model and that the model is spreading.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.
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