In policy circles on both sides of the partisan aisles, the conversations around higher education are growing louder.
The United States is spending far too much money educating philosophy majors with limited job prospects, say those on the right (including, most prominently, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos). No, no, argue those on the left: The U.S. either isn't spending enough money, or isn't spending money efficiently enough, to ensure that vulnerable students obtain the post-secondary credentials they need to thrive in the modern economy.
To be sure, recent government reports are discouraging.
In a white paper published earlier this month, the Department of Education highlighted some of the challenges currently bedeviling the country's higher education system: low completion rates, particularly among low-income and minority students who "are often left with debt and few skills or job prospects that lead to upward mobility"; a lack of "new and different postsecondary options" despite growth in the number of jobs that require more than a high school degree and less than a bachelor's degree; and too many programs that fail to "prepare graduates for the demands of adult life, citizenship, and the modern workplace."
Much of these complaints are not controversial. In fact, there's now widespread agreement among researchers and politicians that the country's system of post-secondary education needs to make changes. College completion rates have declined at all types of institutions; the U.S. lags far behind other developed countries in encouraging the work-based forms of learning that can appeal to students who are economically vulnerable or don't enjoy traditional educational models; and far too few students are told about non-bachelor's degree and certificate programs that are often quite economically valuable.
"These are real issues, and it's worthwhile to talk about them and address them," says Jim Rosenbaum, a sociologist at Northwestern University. "I've heard [DeVos] say that a college degree is not the only path to success—I would totally agree and go further and say why should we only talk about one kind of college degree? There are many other types of degrees. And they have good career trajectories and earnings payoffs, and many of them can ultimately lead to a B.A."
So, everyone can agree there's a problem. The question now is, how best to mitigate it: by blowing up the country's current system of higher education, or by reforming it?
In the White House, the solution seems to be the former.
Earlier this month, DeVos released a sweeping list of proposed changes to the federal regulations that govern the U.S.'s higher education system. The goal of these changes, which will be negotiated and discussed in the coming months, according to DeVos, is to "rethink" higher education and incentivize people to question "everything to ensure nothing limits students from being prepared for what comes next."
To accomplish these ends, DeVos is targeting the crucially important higher education accreditation process. The U.S. government does not actually accredit schools itself; instead, it tasks federally recognized independent accrediting agencies with evaluating and monitoring institutions of higher education. Only students at schools accredited by a recognized agency are eligible for financial aid. In recent years, in the face of widespread allegations of fraud at a number of for-profit schools, the Obama administration instituted a crackdown on accrediting agencies, even terminating recognition of the particularly troubled Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. (DeVos restored the agency's recognition last November.)
DeVos is proposing a host of changes to the accreditation process that would make it easier for new accreditation agencies to obtain recognition from the federal government and for existing accreditation agencies to evaluate different types of programs; make it easier for schools to gain accreditation and to open new branches and launch new degree programs; allow schools to outsource up to 100 percent of an academic program to an unaccredited outside institution; loosen instruction requirements for distance education programs; and strike the federal definition of a credit hour. The Department of Education argues these changes will unleash much-needed innovation in the sector. Education experts on the left, however, worry they're a recipe for disaster.
"The federal government is essentially redefining how we measure an education, what a program looks like, what an institution looks like," says Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. "And we're changing all these definitions that we have, many of which were put in place for a reason, and simultaneously deferring more and more of the federal government's authority to accrediting agencies. Accrediting agencies have a long history here, and they don't have the greatest track record. Getting rid of federal standards and rolling back our oversight of accrediting agencies is really dangerous. It's kind of a one-two punch."
Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education researcher and professor at Temple University, argues that DeVos' changes are moving in exactly the wrong direction. "We need fewer schools accredited, not more," she says. "We've given accreditation to way too many schools."
Of all the regulatory changes DeVos is proposing, experts were particularly concerned about the proposed change allowing accredited institutions to outsource programs.
"It would allow an institution to outsource 100 percent of its education to someone else, literally anyone else," says Amy Laitinen, the director for higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank. "A non-accredited, non-licensed, non-education provider would be renting the name and accreditation status of the accredited institution, and this is all hidden from the students."
The change, Laitinen says, could result in a "disaster on every level."
"There's $130 billion of federal financial aid up for grabs every year," says Laitinen, who has recently been receiving calls from private equity firms interested in this rule-making process. "Folks cannot wait to get their hands on some of those dollars."
Even among those more sympathetic to DeVos' deregulatory agenda, there are concerns. Representatives from the accreditation industry have expressed the necessity of ensuring that any changes don't make it easier for "bad actors" to access federal funds. Some have also expressed skepticism that the changes DeVos is proposing will solve the problems facing higher education. "The department is kidding itself if it thinks it will do lots of things to accreditation and all the problems will be solved," Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Chronicle of Higher Education recently.
Community colleges around the country are trying to tackle these issues. A particularly promising model at several City University of New York community colleges, the Accelerated Study in Associate Program, has been independently evaluated and found to produce graduation rates double those of non-ASAP students. In the long-term, 63.6 percent of ASAP students had earned a degree (either an associate's, bachelor's, or both), in comparison to only 43.3. percent of non-ASAP comparison students. The program is particularly beneficial for underrepresented groups. In its evaluation of the program, the MDRC, a non-partisan education research organization, concluded that the model was "highly promising" and noted that the program's effects were larger than any other community college intervention they had studied.
Academic and social supports can make a huge difference too. A randomized, controlled trial published last year of an intensive case management intervention (including emergency financial assistance) targeting low-income students at a community college in Fort Worth, Texas, found impressive effects. Those researchers conclude that the intervention "significantly increases persistence and degree completion, especially for women."
Effective innovation in postsecondary education, in other words, is already happening. It may not be happening as quickly, or as uniformly, as some would like. But evidence-based innovations do exist, and expanding the use of these carries far less risk than the "blow it up" approach DeVos seems to be advocating.
"This just seems to be a really radical approach," Rosenbaum says. "We can do radical reform and hope that we got all the pieces together and no one gets hurt, or we can do gradual reform with what we already have on the ground. That's less risky and more likely to work."
It's no accident that the changes mentioned above occurred at traditional community colleges. These under-appreciated (and underfunded) institutions still serve a huge proportion of college students in the U.S. In 2014, 42 percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. were enrolled in public two-year colleges, 35 percent were enrolled in public four-year colleges, 15 percent were enrolled in private, non-profit four-year colleges, and 7 percent were enrolled in for-profit institutions.
What's more, research shows that these community colleges do a much better job of serving students than for-profit institutions. Stephanie Riegg Cellini, an economist at George Washington University who studies the returns of different types of post-secondary programs, has found that for-profit programs simply don't stack up to community colleges, even among comparable students.
"Over and over, the literature is showing that students at for-profit institutions do worse than or, at best, the same as students at community colleges with respect to labor market outcomes," Cellini says. "When you add debt, we're seeing that students at for-profit institutions are getting smaller earning gains, in some studies, than a community college student, and they're leaving with higher debt. Even at best, if students have the same earnings gains, they're paying more in debt."
Many of the bipartisan post-secondary reform proposals that have emerged in recent years have targeted community colleges. A number of states have begun to offer two years of "free" community college. Economists and policymakers have suggested significant funding increases for community colleges (sometimes targeting career and vocational education, etc.). Others have proposed making Pell grants more easily accessible to non-traditional students.
In theory, DeVos' proposed changes could free up community colleges to "innovate" as well. But many experts were skeptical that accreditation regulations are the main barriers to innovation at most community colleges. They pointed to another big factor as the problem: funding. Community colleges, which saw massive funding cuts during the recession even as they were expected to serve more students, struggle financially to provide services like academic coaching, case management, or hands-on technical education.
"[The lack of funding] is why we're in this situation in the first place," Goldrick-Rab says. "We have a student debt crisis because we changed the financial aid model. We've made it less possible for people to go to college at a time they really want to go."
Instead of spurring innovation at well-intentioned institutions, analysts worry, the changes DeVos is proposing could instead result in a fresh flood of (primarily for-profit) "bad actors" eager to exploit regulatory loopholes.
"I don't know that the interests of the colleges are always aligned with the interests of the students. In fact, I have reason to believe that they are not at for-profit colleges," says Cellini, the GW researcher. Unlike community colleges, which are accountable to state and county governments and typically must seek approval from their boards when making changes, for-profit colleges are accountable to their shareholders. This has led to allegations that they're more interested in maximizing profits, and capturing federal aid dollars, than delivering outcomes for their students.
Rosenbaum, the Northwestern sociologist, echoes Cellini's concerns. "[For-profit colleges] take advantage of loopholes very quickly and very easily. And it's disturbing because they show no compunction for what they're getting students stuck into," he says.