New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Ed Dept’s Studley on College Ratings, Feds

 In April 2013, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
Past installments of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing: Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about ACE efforts to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world; AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on liberal education; Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), on the growing challenges facing higher education governance; Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based labor market analytics firm, on the link between higher education and the economic well-being; Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith S. Eaton on self-regulation; American Association of State Colleges and Universities President Muriel Howard on the challenges and opportunities facing public higher education; Teagle Foundation President Judith Shapiro on strategic philanthropy; and University of Southern California scholar Adrianna Kezaron the new faculty mix in higher education.

In this installment, DiSalvio interviews U.S. Department of Education Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne S. Studley, who chairs the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). Studley previously served as president of Skidmore College, president and CEO of Public Advocates Inc. and associate dean at Yale Law School.

The context

The partnership between the federal government and higher education in the U.S. has existed for almost a century. The government sponsors campus research, helps students pay for college and permits tax-deferred retirement plans and medical insurance for faculty and staff.

The appropriate roles of the federal government in ensuring access, funding research and regulating higher education, however, have come under recent scrutiny by policymakers and higher education leaders as the price of college continuing to outpace earnings growth, graduation rates declining, and student debt-loads increase. Moreover, college leaders are divided about the appropriate role for the federal government in holding institutions accountable.

With colleges and universities receiving a total of $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants, the Obama administration insists that the problem of accountability is acute and that higher education institutions must prove they are worth it.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been quoted as saying that “schools often (do) a poor job of providing information to prospective students and their parents, making the choice of a college complicated.”

A widely publicized proposal for a governmental rating system would provides new incentives for colleges to hold down costs and broaden access, interposing the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh options. Governmental rating of colleges and universities has many higher ed presidents expressing deep concern about the idea.

As deputy under secretary, Studley has been a vocal advocate for the proposed rating system and other initiatives that advance efforts in promoting access, affordability and attainment. With her strong focus on higher education policy development and outreach, Studley addresses questions on the Obama administration’s higher education regulatory and public policy agenda.

The Interview

DiSalvio: You have been a strong voice for low-income and underrepresented Americans and have said that it wasn’t enough to have a public policy goal of ensuring access to higher education. In point of fact, it is essential to ask “access to what.” Could you elaborate on that?

Studley: The words that I think about are “completion” and “quality outcomes.” The doors we open through quality education need to give people tangible opportunities and a sense of meaning and independence in the world. High levels of education benefit both individuals and the nation, from higher earnings to a better quality of life for Americans, to a stronger, more prosperous economy and society for us all.

Currently, half of all U.S. students who begin college never finish. And our disadvantaged students are far less likely to complete college and earn degrees than their more affluent peers. For low-income students, the completion rate is less than 1 in 10. We used to be a world leader in postsecondary attainment for young adults, but we have fallen to 12th in the world. By 2020, 50% of public school students in America will be non-white, and we need to be especially vigilant in closing pernicious achievement gaps among student populations.

This was highlighted by Lumina’s recent report, “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education,” which points out troubling differences in college completion for adults ages 25 to 64. While Asians and white adults have degree attainment rates of 59% and 44% respectively, the rates are only 28% for black adults, 23% for Native Americans and 20% for Hispanics. So in terms of access to “what,” we also have an issue of access for “whom.”

There are, however, some promising signs. The college enrollment rate for Hispanic/Latino students has gone from 61% to 76% in 2012, and for Black/African-American students from 59% to 68%. With access on the rise, we also need to work on completion rates for a quality, affordable education. That means establishing programs which ensure that the debt students take on for their education does not deter their completion.

In terms of quality outcomes, there are a number of dimensions. We need to make sure we equip students to be adaptable, creative and effective in communication and problem-solving, in learning new things and working across differences. That is what business tells us they need from workers and what we know will be required in a globally competitive knowledge economy. It is what people will need as members of a diverse, hyperconnected society where people work in teams and move around the country and world to be successful.

Another important quality outcome is making sure that students are equipped with the ability to effectively research and process information, and make complex decisions that are good for our collective success. This is certainly what we need in citizens, policymakers and leaders.

To reach the North Star of leading the world in college completion by the end of the decade, it is critical that we improve access and make college more affordable. Toward that end, we have doubled the federal investment in Pell grants for low-income students, expanded pay-as-you-earn and income-based-repayment options to help students manage their student loan debt, expanded education tax credits, and worked with Congress to keep student loan interests low. We’ve placed a renewed emphasis on strengthening America’s community colleges, as they offer an affordable education to millions of Americans and work with local businesses and industry to prepare students for today’s jobs that will also grow our economy. And we are working hard to give students and families information to invest wisely in education, from the financial aid shopping sheet, a standard but voluntary form we’re encouraging all institutions to use to notify students about their financial aid packages, to the College Scorecardwhich highlights key indicators about the cost and value of institutions to help students choose schools well-suited to their financial needs and educational goals.

DiSalvio: The president wants to link federal student loans to affordability and student performance. In what context should the U.S. government’s effort be seen?

Studley: College matters more than ever in preserving the American Dream. Historically, states, the federal government and individuals and families have shared the financial responsibility. However, in the last few years, state governments have been disinvesting in public education. This is particularly alarming given that 80% of our higher education students go to public higher institutions.

We want to re-engage the historic partnership with states and their investment in higher education to ensure both the opportunity to go to college and the quality of the schools available to students. We know that college aspirations are differentially allocated. A child born into the bottom 20% of the income scale has less than a 1 in 20 shot of making it to the top without a college education. Earning a college degree changes those odds to 1 in 5.

A college education is strongly connected to the ability to make change in the world, to develop businesses, to influence others and to support a family. We want to be very responsive to those students who ask the department to help with college affordability. These students want to go to college, they are willing to work and they’re asking us to help ensure that they graduate with an education of real value. Hearing from them is always a powerful and poignant experience.

For these reasons, President Obama has made a commitment to keep college within reach for all students. As part of a broad plan to promote postsecondary access, affordability and meaningful outcomes, the president charged the department with designing a rating system that promotes these goals, increases accountability for the federal investment in higher education and makes better information available to students and families.

In our minds, the rating system is a way to accelerate the good things that are happening in education. This includes better ways for people to understand where institutions are doing a good job of providing access, and offering an affordable education that leads to the kinds of quality outcomes–graduation, ability to handle financial debt responsibilities, finding meaningful work and earning an adequate income.

We are still designing the system so I’ll focus on the big picture objectives. We believe that this system, wisely done, can drive a constructive conversation and ask important questions: “Which colleges are opening those doors? Which are offering a successful education at a reasonable price?”

In fact, many schools have begun to use new processes and practices to reduce costs while keeping quality strong. For example, some are advising in new ways. I recently spoke at the commencement at Cal State University-Dominguez Hills, which is highly respected for its work on student support and student success strategies. Purdue University has invested in nearly 100 courses that are delivered on a “flipped” model, so students first study material outside class, then use class time to deepen their knowledge through more focused work with professors, teaching assistants and fellow students. Purdue, MIT and many other colleges are using course materials that include filmed lectures by distinguished speakers and new technologies that let students know what part of the curriculum they have mastered and where they need to work harder. We see that the flipped classroom can be a place for rich conversation and interchange.

Those and many other initiatives are being pursued around the nation in some interesting ways, and we think that a rating system would create incentives for innovations that benefit students. We hear strong support for ratings from education leaders affiliated with publicly funded state institutions, who are most likely to have worked with their state in designing funding mechanisms that deal with these kinds of metrics. The fact that state education leaders are becoming increasingly comfortable with this notion is a good sign for us.

In addition, counselors who work with the lowest-income students are very enthusiastic about the consumer information side of this project, because they work closely with the students who are hungriest for more and richer information.

We know that it’s a very complicated project and we have been listening for months. We’ve had more than 80 meetings, 4,000 participants, and have received more than 450 comments. We’ll continue the conversation, and do everything possible to design a system that helps move us toward access, affordability and quality results. Our goal is to do that without creating unintended consequences or disincentives. And we’ll do everything we can to make sure that this system encourages willingness to accept high-risk students, given that it is our national financial aid priority to help those students attend and complete college.

DiSalvio: With the wide-ranging regulatory agenda on the radar for President Obama’s second term, it’s been reported that the Department of Education will use the regulatory process known as negotiated rulemaking to pursue a long-term agenda that will take several years to complete. Could you explain that in terms of higher education policy?

Studley: As you know, Congress makes the law and our agency then has an opportunity to issue regulations that fill in the details within the law. When there is a new law, regulations are often necessary to make the law more practical or to help people understand the rules of the road. And when circumstances change, even if the statute hasn’t changed, it is sometimes appropriate to re-regulate in light of new circumstances.

Negotiated rulemaking is a process that the Department of Education is required to conduct when we make rules. It ensures that we engage with the public and have a serious discussion about what the rules should look like and what policy choices should be made within those rules. When I was in the Department of Education in the 1990s, Congress for the first time applied that requirement to our rulemaking, and I helped implement it. I believe strongly in the value of sitting down with all the stakeholders in a particular subject area and having a structured way to ensure that everyone’s ideas are heard.

If the group of stakeholders is able to reach a consensus about the content of the rule, then the department is required to publish it as the proposed rule for public comment. We then develop a final rule, and everyone who participated in achieving that consensus agrees that they will not argue against it and will not try to change the rule. It requires a great deal of cooperation from the community of higher education, consumer and student groups, and often the financial aid community.

We have used the process for several different rules that were negotiated recently. One specific example involved the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and how to implement new policies on campuses. That was done with students as well as their advocates, the student affairs staff who handle those kinds of complaints, campus police, campus leadership and the department. The rulemaking committee was able to reach consensus on what needed to be done to implement the VAWA provisions in the campus crime law, known as the Clery Act, and our proposed rule was published on June 20

I could point to other examples where we are regulating to better serve students, like “gainful employment.” These policies cover all postsecondary education programs that are designed to lead to “gainful employment” in a recognized field or occupation. This has far-reaching effects as we try to ensure that federal student aid funds do not go to programs that are low in quality, have low completion rates, or leave students saddled with debt and either few job prospects or low expected earnings in the field.

DiSalvio:Some have argued that accreditation in its current form does not adequately fulfill its academic quality function. Is it a fair question to ask whether accreditation is rigorous and consistent enough and whether the U.S. Department of Education is appropriately asking it?

Studley: Thisis a question I often ask myself. Accreditation, in the words of Sylvia Manning, the outgoing head of the Higher Learning Commission, is “a special American invention.” Congress decided to have this function conducted by peer organizations of educators rather than by the government, based on the view that this is not an appropriate role for the federal government. In many other countries, a ministry of education actually carries out that function.

The U.S. boasts some of the world’s finest postsecondary institutions. The accreditation universe includes many leaders in focusing on student learning outcomes, and I commend that.

Some accreditors have been key in helping institutions ask better questions about learning outcomes and about what students need to learn to enter a particular field. Unfortunately, however, there are still too many institutions with weak track records, where students are not getting the skills and credentials they seek and need.

Those poor performing institutions are spread across the nation and the higher education landscape. We are engaged with accreditors in a conversation about how we can ensure rigorous minimum standards while at the same time streamlining processes and reducing burdens where appropriate, especially for consistently high-performing institutions.

The interest in accreditation is increasing, not only in the Department of Education, but also among campus leaders. I have seen presidents and provosts of notable institutions taking a new interest and role in the accreditation process, and in the minimum criteria their accrediting agency applies. More of the institutional leaders are realizing the important stake they have in this process.

At the same time, the president has called for accreditation to be both more rigorous and more creative. In his State of the Union speech almost a year-and-a-half ago, he asked whether those responsible for accreditation should join this department and the nation in considering value and affordability as well as educational quality. He suggested the possibility of new alternative systems and new education models to secure federal student aid based on performance and results. That idea—and the possibility of new players and new approaches either to institutional accreditation or approval of elements of learning through competency-based measures—has gained fresh attention.

DiSalvio: What should higher education leaders take from the Obama’s administration’s impact and legacy for higher education?

Studley: We are focused intently on college completion and ensuring that the opportunity to secure a college education is within reach for all who are willing to work for it. Everything we are doing at the Department of Education points toward that goal.

Achieving our goal for college completion begins with learning readiness and preschool education as building blocks toward college. We’re striving to create a smooth pathway from cradle to college and career. One example of smoothing the pathway is through better alignment of high school and college coursework, so a student who does well in high school is learning to a standard that prepares him or her to succeed in college. We are also working mightily to reduce the financial barriers and fears about college, using tools like incentivizing lower college costs, targeting grant support to low-income students, providing financial aid information to families earlier and increasing loan-repayment options.

I hope our legacy will be seen in higher graduation rates, in greater national confidence in the opportunity and value of college, and ultimately in the enriched lives and national momentum and confidence that flow from an educated public.


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