Is US higher education headed for 'Wild West' tumult?


F. King Alexander

Everyone in America should be concerned about recent news that the U.S. Department of Education has quietly but steadily deprioritized investigations into fraud and abuse by a number of for-profit institutions. This doesn’t just impact current and future students — it affects every tax-paying citizen in our country.

Higher education is more than a series of classes or a piece of paper, especially to first-generation students. It is the path to opportunity, social mobility and economic success. But the current environment is already difficult enough for the average student and his or her family to navigate. Which school is both affordable and will help a student reach his or her goals? How much financial aid might a student qualify for — and how much will he or she need to pay back?

Some for-profit universities prey on this confusion, and use expensive marketing strategies to camouflage their lack of credibility with the promise of being a faster, more modern approach to higher education than the traditional university. In doing so, they specifically target vulnerable populations, such as military families and those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Students who have been victimized all too often find out the depth of their mistake only after taking out large loans and exhausting available grants. And with a worthless degree, these students find that their job options are just as limited as before, only now they are also saddled with insurmountable debt.

Who’s on the hook when these misled students, who were simply pursuing degrees and the promise of better lives for their families, default on their loans? Think of it this way: The federal government supplies grants and loans on the front end, and on the back end provides loan forgiveness when institutions go under, as it did with ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges. In both cases, it is the taxpayer who ultimately becomes responsible for the debt.

That is why efforts such as the College Transparency Act are so important. U.S. college students and graduates now carry the burden of $1.5 trillion (and growing) in debt while tuition rises rapidly and college completion rates improve only marginally. Much of this is the result of fiscal and educational waste and fraud on the part of unsupervised and unregulated for-profit universities, which prey on many of the most vulnerable student populations (including military, first-generation and low-income families).

Right now, only a small portion of the data collected from higher-education institutions is made available to consumers through sites like the College Scorecard and the National Student Clearinghouse. With the curation and analysis of additional data, students and their families would have the ability to make more informed and personalized decisions that best suit their individual situations.

Greater transparency can only help reduce the growing public perception that higher education no longer provides the social and economic returns that it once did — and it will help students separate high-quality institutions from the increasingly prevalent diploma mills. Increased accountability reassures the public that checks and balances are in place to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently and effectively. To rebuild the public’s trust, we have to permit the public to see behind the curtain of the academic marketplace by providing the information necessary to inform students and parents of the costs and benefits of colleges and universities. Most importantly, such information will allow the market to have ultimate decision-making capability based upon individual needs and priorities.

As a university president and a college parent, I can tell you from both personal and professional experience that outcomes-based data is not only desired by consumers but essential for making educated choices about higher-education institutions throughout the nation. The College Scorecard represents a massive undertaking on the part of many college and university leaders over the last decade and serves as a huge step in the right direction.

Markets fail when inadequate and restricted information permeates the environment. We should all work together to produce value-based metrics that help universities tell the real story about the benefits of higher education while also helping students make the best possible decision when selecting a college or university.

Over a decade ago, The Economist stated that U.S. higher education was best characterized as the “Wild West” because our government distributes relatively unrestricted public dollars with no regard to an institution’s mission or outcomes. Without oversight, students, parents and consumers of higher education aren’t able to see behind the curtain, having to trust that what they are paying for is actually worth something.

Many steps have been taken in the interim to correct a system that for too long has been fueled by a lack of information at best, and utter misinformation at worst. Unfortunately, many have fought to keep important consumer-based information out of the hands of those who wish to pursue a college education. This is why the Department of Education’s move to diminish the weight of new and existing regulations and enforcement efforts could return our nation’s higher-education system to this “Wild West” characterization.

Loosening restrictions on for-profit institutions that mislead students and parents — so they can return to paying their shareholders on the backs of the next generation of students — is simply not an option if the United States is to continue to be a beacon of social mobility to the rest of the world.

F. King Alexander is the president of Louisiana State University. This commentary was originally published by  The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

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