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Senators discuss including accountability in Higher Education Act reauthorization

Lamar Alexander
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) talks with reporters on Nov. 29, 2016, before the Senate Policy Luncheons in the U.S. Capitol. (Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said during an April 10 committee hearing there should be a measure of accountability for colleges and universities, focusing on whether students are repaying loans and whether institutions are benefiting students, because the current system isn't working.

This hearing was the Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee’s third one of this Congressional session about reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. 

The act was last reauthorized in 2008 and is supposed to be reauthorized every five years.

Alexander said Congress should not act as a national school board through the bureaucracy of accountability.

“Our goal needs to be to help students know that their degrees are going to be worth their time and money and to help taxpayers know that the federal government isn’t financing programs that do not provide students with a valuable education,” he said.

Earlier this month, Democratic senators introduced the Protect Student Borrowers Act for the third time as a response to the high costs of higher education.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the bill, shared Alexander’s concerns over the worth of a degree a university will give students and the future impact that degree has.

“Too many colleges and universities are handing out degrees that aren’t worth the money students put into them, leaving students saddled with debt and unable to build their futures,” he said in a statement. “That has to stop.”

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the main sponsor of the bill, said in the same statement that universities provide large benefits to students and the economy, yet tuition costs lead to heavy student debt.

“We think it’s time for universities to step up and take some responsibility when it comes to student loan defaults,” Reed said.

A majority of college administrators in a survey from national center-left think tank Third Way earlier this month agreed that students should be able to expect a return on higher education investments.

73 percent of the 211 administrators surveyed said the value of higher education is to set students up for career success. 91 percent agreed that students that attend higher education institutions should be able to repay student loans and get jobs that will earn more than those with only a high school degree.

Higher education leaders also shared sentiments that students, institutions and the government all have a role in improving financial outcomes. Nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed many institutions spend too much time and money on enrolling students instead of serving the ones they have.

A majority of those surveyed agreed improving federal incentives and guardrails for higher education institutions should be a priority.

79 percent prioritized addressing the cost of higher education and 77 percent said Congress should focus on holding higher education institutions responsible for student outcomes.

The senators are still formulating the plan, but they hope its provisions can be part of HEA reauthorization. Their goals are managing student loan defaults, providing more information to families and improving accreditation standards.

Wesley Whistle, an education policy advisor for Third Way, said about eight million students are currently in default on their student loans, and that the current accountability system in place does not do enough — only 12 schools are being penalized.

According to a U.S. Department of Education report, these schools were sanctioned because their cohort default rates exceeded 30 to 40 percent or more.

Whistle said the current system isn’t working partly because schools can manipulate the rate, and schools with a quarter of students defaulting on their loans would not be in violation of the Department of Education’s standards.

Whistle said he was optimistic of HEA reauthorization during this session of Congress, partly due to the consensus between Alexander and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member.

He said the worst possible financial outcome for students is them defaulting on their loans, so any HEA reauthorization must account for more than just default rates, such as repayment rate and completion rate.

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“Students enroll in college to go get a degree that gives them labor market value to go find a good job and to earn a good life,” he said. “Any accountability system and HEA should take that into account to make sure more students who enroll in college get the degree they’re seeking when they enroll for the first time.”


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