Education Department official describes the administration’s philosophy on accountability in higher education and agrees with fellow panelists on states’ overreliance on federal funding.
BALTIMORE — So far the Trump administration’s take on trying to hold colleges more accountable has relied largely on releasing more public-facing data about their performance at the program level, while also deregulating and dropping sanction-bearing rules from the Obama era.
The U.S. Department of Education’s top higher education official, Diane Auer Jones, the principal deputy under secretary, described this approach on Wednesday at an event held here by Inside Higher Ed on the future of public higher education.
“Our philosophy on accountability is that government has an obligation to make data and information available to consumers. But we don’t think government knows better than an individual what is right for that individual,” she said. “People should know what the outcomes might be so that they borrow responsibly. But somebody who’s interested in philosophy should still pursue philosophy, and somebody who’s interested in welding should pursue welding.”
In May the department updated the College Scorecard, for the first time including preliminary data on student loan debt at the academic program level. More is on the way for the consumer tool created by the Obama administration, Jones said, including annual earnings of graduates one year after college and data on college debt held by parents, such as through Parent PLUS loans.
The administration has reached out to the private sector for help with the updated Scorecard. “We’ve been working with Google, because one thing I know is that Google will do it better than the government can do it,” Jones said. “So we will have a student-facing website. But if we really want data usable by students, Google’s going to do a much better job.”
Jones reiterated the department’s caveats about the Scorecard’s new data being preliminary and still a work in progress. She said the plan is to publish a limited amount of high-value metrics for students and parents, but to also release much more for researchers to use.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “We had a decision to make — do you wait until you have the perfect site to put data out or do you put it out as you get it? And we’re putting it out as we get it.”
The Scorecard is a welcome step toward more transparency in higher education, said F. King Alexander, president of the Louisiana State University system, who joined Jones as a participant in the panel discussion.
“We spent 40 years without providing any information to anybody. And we know more about used cars we bought,” Alexander said.
In the Great Recession’s wake, Alexander said, students and parents started asking more about college outcomes. Yet the new data haven’t come easily.
“It was a fight the last 10 years to get the Scorecard up,” said Alexander, adding that trade groups for higher education, private colleges and for-profits “fought it every step of the way.”
Carrots, Sticks and Performance Funding
Many have criticized the Trump administration for dropping the gainful-employment rule, which the Obama administration largely aimed at for-profit institutions and designed to punish colleges where relatively large shares of graduates were unable to repay their student loans. Likewise, some say the department’s recently concluded rule making on accreditation gives those agencies too much latitude to avoid punishing low-performing colleges.
Jones defended the move toward relying more on transparency and the market than on regulations. And she said the executive action on accreditation creates a higher standard of …(continue reading)