Hearing Recap: College Accountability Edition

WASHINGTON – Yesterday, the Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee held a hearing entitled “Lowering Costs and Increasing Value for Students, Institutions, and Taxpayers.” 

For too long, colleges have skirted accountability for sky-high tuition prices and low-value degree programs. After going unchecked for years, the problem has given rise to a looming national student debt total of over $1.7 trillion.

Committee Republicans, led by Chairman Burgess Owens (R-UT), identified the root causes preventing borrowers from repaying their loans. Chairman Owens offered a critique of the status quo and structural cost problems, harkening back to days when college held more value for students and taxpayers.

“Before college became a universal mandate thrust upon unwitting 17-year-olds, this ideal was perhaps accurate. College was cheap. Jobs were being filled. And students and taxpayers were all but guaranteed a return on investment,” said Chairman Owens in his opening statement.

“That is not the case today. Outdated measures of quality, coupled with virtually zero transparency of value, have distorted the postsecondary education marketplace,” he continued. These issues and more were front and center for the rest of the day in testimony and questioning.

The hearing’s expert witness panel included Michael B. Horn, Author and Co-Founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation; Stig Leschly, President and Founder of the Postsecondary Commission; and Dr. Andrew Gillen, Senior Policy Analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

In his opening statement, Horn identified four dynamics that result in college’s “unsustainable cost trajectory.” These are postsecondary education’s inscrutable value and pricing combined with students’ irresponsible attitudes towards loans and education in general, which altogether create an untenable incentive structure.

The college accreditation process was also put under the microscope by witness testimony. Leschly identified a new model for accreditation, such as those offered by the Postsecondary Commission, which focuses accreditation on college outputs like wage gains—not inputs like enrollment. But reform is difficult, as it’s not every day a new college accreditor like the Postsecondary Commission seeks to enter the market.

Concluding the opening statements, Dr. Gillen addressed the lack of college accountability demanded by the government. “ROI [Return on Investment] metrics can be used to apply carrots and sticks to colleges. For example, colleges offering high-value programs could be given performance bonuses. In contrast, low value programs could face sanctions,” proposed Dr. Gillen.

Opening the questioning, Rep. Nathaniel Moran (R-TX) picked up where Dr. Gillen left off by asking about the success of Texas State Technical College’s (TSTC) new funding model. It mirrors Dr. Gillen’s carrot and stick proposal. Instead of receiving money from state appropriators, TSTC works by assessing the wage gain from its graduates versus an estimated wage if they didn’t go to college, projecting the amount of tax revenue the wages produce for the state, and then Texas returns them a portion of said revenue.

It’s an innovative model, which Dr. Gillen says has “led to really great changes within TSTC and the state. Everybody in Texas is very pleased with this. The cities that don’t have a campus want one. The cities that do have a campus are thrilled to have one.”

Changing gears, Rep. Erin Houchin (R-IN) talked about pricing transparency issues in postsecondary institutions and her own experience, commenting, “When I submitted the paperwork to get a student loan, I was asked a question, ‘How much does it cost?’ and then the answer was, ‘We will pay whatever the cost is.’” In other words, colleges can continue to increase their costs because federal student aid will cover it making the cost to the student to be a deferred worry.

This theme of continual rising costs was apparent throughout the hearing. Democrats blame state disinvestment for higher tuition, but Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) brought up Dr. Gillen’s research showing that argument is a myth. Rep. Grothman posed the question: “[If] states have increased funding, who is the culprit when it comes to tuition inflation?”

Dr. Gillen pointed out that the number of non-teaching personnel outnumber the number of teaching personnel. Well, no wonder colleges are hemorrhaging money and hiking costs. Their staffing priorities are backwards!

Of equal concern to rising costs is ubiquitous progressive college groupthink and institutional wokeness which diverts resources from the goal of student achievement. Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) focused on the role of accreditors in enforcing woke standards. To Leschly, he asked, “Do you think it’s proper for an accreditor to threaten institutions seeking to operate according to their sincerely held religious beliefs by forcing political litmus tests on them?”

 “Accreditors should not run colleges. They should regulate the outcomes of colleges fairly and precisely,” responded Leschly.

If only. Some accreditors like ABA and LCME operate with a clear political agenda.

Finally, tying together the lines of questioning regarding administrative bloat and woke institutional proliferation from Reps. Grothman and Good, respectively, Rep Jim Banks (R-IN) asked about the meteoric rise of school Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) departments.

Rep. Banks questioned, “Why do colleges feel justified tacking on these types of programs when they aren’t tied to measurable learning outcomes?” “Whatever faction is most powerful on any given campus is going to have an advantage when it comes to divvying up their resources. On some campuses it’s going to be the DEI offices. On some campuses it’s going to be the football team,” answered Dr. Gillen.

Bottom Line: Committee Republicans are exploring every avenue to hold colleges accountable for exorbitant tuition prices and low-value degree programs.

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