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Considerations as Congress Looks to Higher Education Legislation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Nathan Favero
March 10, 2019

With the partial federal government shutdown finally resolved, the new Congress can now begin working on pursuing various legislative priorities (as well as conducting investigative oversight of the executive brand). One item on some Congressmembers’ agenda is reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Based on proposals put forward in the prior Congress, we can already see interest in policy changes that line up with several approaches frequently discussed in recent years within public administration or higher education policy circles. Understanding these broader ideas can help us to intelligently evaluate the various proposals that will be floated in the coming months.

1) Creating and publishing quantitative performance measures

Many policymakers, administrators and donors are demanding quantitative performance measures from government and nonprofit organizations in a variety of sectors. Higher education is no exception.

Some are pushing for the collection of data on the financial earnings of college and university graduates who have received federal financial aid. This data could then be used to create a website where prospective students can easily look up the typical earnings for a graduate of a particular institution or even of a department within that institution.

Like any performance measure, this one has limitations. We don’t know how much a school’s graduates would have earned if they hadn’t obtained their degree, so it’s hard to know if high earnings by graduates indicate an effective program or merely one that attracts people with high earning potential. Additionally, many would argue that financial impact is not the only important performance dimension for a college.

At the same time, no measure is perfect, and having access to some earnings information will probably improve prospective students’ understanding of financial tradeoffs relative to the status quo. Earnings might not be all that a prospective student cares about, but it will be an important factor for many. Reporting data at the departmental level will draw attention to the large disparities in financial returns by major, which is something that many students may not fully appreciate in our current system.

2) Reducing regulation, relying on market mechanisms

Republicans in Congress appear to be pushing for reducing regulations—specifically regulations of for-profit colleges and universities. Currently, the federal regulators can (and do) create regulations that apply only to for-profit institutions, which may face a different set of incentives than non-profit and public colleges. Some want to eliminate regulators’ ability to treat for-profit institutions differently from non-profit and public colleges. Pairing these regulatory changes with the new data collection and dissemination policies discussed above would arguably maintain accountability for all colleges by unleashing stronger market forces once consumers of higher education are empowered with better information on which to make enrollment decisions.

But in order for higher education consumers to provide meaningful accountability for colleges, these consumers must be responsive to indicators of college quality when making enrollment decisions. Unfortunately, we know little about how prospective students use information about colleges to make enrollment decisions.

The market-based logic invoked here is similar to arguments made by school choice advocates in the k-12 education setting. Unfortunately, evidence that parents’ school choice decisions provide meaningful accountability for charter schools is mixed. Charter schools, which arguably should face greater market pressures, appear to generally perform no better (or worse) than traditional public schools. And performance information does not appear to be a strong driver of which schools parents choose for their children. If consumers of higher education resemble parents making decisions about k-12 education, there is reason to doubt that consumers will provide much accountability for colleges even when additional performance information is made publicly available.

3) Improving options for trade school and apprenticeship programs

Postsecondary education policy in the United States has mostly focused on traditional college education experiences rather than trade school or apprenticeship approaches to workforce preparation. Though many community colleges offer some types of vocational or certificate programs, the United States does not have a trade school or apprenticeship system that is nearly as well-developed as in many other countries.

The lack of attention to apprenticeship or trade school programs in the United States is attributable to a number of factors, including concerns about whether the creation of a vocational education system will lead to educational tracking practices that exacerbate social inequality. At the same time, the United States arguably already has a 3-track system, with one group of people who complete no schooling after high school, a second group who attends community colleges, and a third group who attends traditional four-year colleges.

Republicans have proposed allowing for greater flexibility in using federal financial aid to help pay for vocational and apprenticeship programs. One concern with using federal aid to pay for such programs is that there is not the same well-established set of institutions and programs that exist within the realm of traditional colleges. On the other hand, existing studies do seem to suggest that those who obtain certificates or apprenticeship programs under the current system tend to see positive financial returns from these educational experiences.

Author: Nathan Favero is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. His research focuses on topic related to public management, education policy, social equity, and research methods.

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