Although it is seldom spoken of on the campaign trail, the movement to increase accountability for higher education has been gathering steam in Washington. The U.S. Department of Education offered the first significant action last year, when it proposed to tie federal student loan eligibility at so-called "career" colleges to specific employment metrics. Qualifying institutions would have to prove that loan payments were no more than 30 percent of discretionary income or 12 percent of total earnings, and that a minimum of 35 percent of graduates repay their student loans.
These rules were struck down in court this summer (U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras found that the proposal's focus on defunding the lowest-performing quarter of schools was "arbitrary and capricious"), but lawmakers from both parties were not deterred. Illustrating the hunger for reform in higher education, in August Senators Jeff Merkley, Barbara Mikulski and Tom Harkin introduced a bill that would deny federal student aid to non-accredited degree programs. And in October, Senators Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden offered legislation to mandate that universities disclose graduation and income-to-debt rates for each degree program they offer.
There are considerable differences in the severity and potential efficacy of the DOE's proposals and the Senate legislation. But they do have one thing in common: explicitly or not, all three focus on for-profit colleges. Even the Rubio-Wyden bill, which has the most limited scope, targets for-profits, which are plagued by far lower graduation rates than traditional not-for-profits. The essential argument behind all of these proposals is a sound one: prospective students and their families should be fully informed about what to expect from higher education in terms of both cost and outcomes. This is a principle that should not be limited to for-profit colleges, but should be embraced by their not-for-profit counterparts, as well.
So why does the government not yet hold not-for-profit universities and colleges accountable for student outcomes? Well, our initial knee-jerk reaction is one major reason. If for-profit colleges, which aggressively market career outcomes, have been so resistant to accountability, I expect an even noisier response from my peers at non-profit liberal arts and fine arts colleges, where demand for accountability represents an affront to core values. This is an outdated bias — in the post-recession economy, a liberal arts or design education should align directly to demonstrable outcomes. The American economy is increasingly driven by intellectual and creative pursuits. When universities focus on developing students' talents in complex problem-solving, creative thinking and design, they are helping to form economic leaders. Indeed, recent studies have shown that upon graduation students from both liberal arts and design institutions make significant and measurable economic contributions. Outcomes like these should be measured and encouraged by non-profit institutions.
Further, non-profit accountability will aid students' families. An undergraduate education represents an enormous expense to most families even with generous financial aid, but it still accounts for earning capacity as much as 40 percent higher than a terminal high school diploma. Whatever their type of institution, university leaders owe it to students and parents to prove that the education they provide contributes to that statistic, that college-level learning has an economic, as well as a creative and intellectual, value.
Regardless of how the government responds to this imperative, colleges and universities should undertake on their own a number of efforts to demonstrate that they achieve what they claim to do. First they should articulate specific and measurable capabilities, which they strive to teach their graduates. In turn, they must develop defensible ways of testing whether these graduates have indeed learned what was promised. Accrediting agencies are already demanding this data, albeit with less than precise results. Second, while the payoff from a four-year college degree may not be immediate, students should expect to find a career-path job in a reasonable period of time after graduation. This first step, which would not be possible without a college degree, is a crucial measure of educational outcomes; the rate at which their graduates obtain that type of job must be tracked and reported.
We at The New School are attempting to articulate and measure the competencies we expect all of our bachelor's degree students to possess upon graduation. These are similar to and recognizable as the general competencies that many suggest that all liberal arts colleges should achieve. In addition, we are identifying a set of creative competencies that we specifically seek to provide our graduates from our BA programs at Lang College and our BFA and related programs at Parsons. For instance, our liberal arts students at Lang develop analytical reasoning by rigorously examining and discussing texts, while also improving their creative leadership skills through project-based learning. The same is true for our design students at Parsons. For each set of competencies, we are engineering methods to measure student development and skill level. Finally, we are collecting employment data for all our graduates and intend to publish them as a way to make us accountable for our efforts and the trust that our students put in us in making a sizable investment.
Both President Obama and Governor Romney have repeatedly played on themes of industrial innovation and transparency. We colleges and universities should not need government regulation to do what is right. We must begin to take more seriously the major investment that our students and their families are making with us and demonstrate why it is a good investment. If we do not take the lead on this, however, we cannot complain when the federal government, which finances most of higher education through its grant and loan programs, takes matters into its own hands and forces us to do what we should be doing on our own.