NAICU Washington Update

House Convenes Hearing on College Accountability

April 10, 2019

The House Committee on Education & Labor conducted its second of five scheduled hearings related to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The hearing, titled Strengthening Accountability in Higher Education to Better Serve Students and Taxpayers, focused primarily on the “accountability triad” and how the states, Congress, and the accrediting community can better work together to protect students and taxpayers from bad actor institutions of higher education. The hearing was held by the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce, chaired by Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) and Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA), the ranking member.
In her opening statement, Rep. Davis focused on the poor student outcomes within the for-profit sector, as well as her opinion that excessive institutional spending on marketing and recruitment must be curtailed within the for-profit sector in order to protect students and taxpayers. In outlining her vision to strengthen institutional accountability, Rep. Davis stated her view that while outcomes data and consumer disclosures will be emphasized during the HEA reauthorization, “improving consumer information is in no way a substitute for accountability.”
Rep. Smucker took a different approach in laying out his vision of institutional accountability. Rep. Smucker criticized accreditors as being “often on the back foot, having to focus on bureaucratic compliance more than on promoting innovation and academic integrity.” He also called for reforms to the current model of higher education accreditation, as well as the need to provide consumers with information about metrics like graduation rates, debt, and employment outcomes at the program-level. Rep. Smucker reinforced many of the principles laid out in the PROSPER Act, the Republicans’ philosophical starting point for HEA reauthorization, which was introduced by House Republicans in December 2017.
During the question and answer period, Democrats on the panel mostly focused their questions on for-profit college accountability while Republicans emphasized the need to promote innovation as a means to encourage competition in the higher education marketplace. Notably, Rep. Smucker highlighted a recent GAO report calling into question the validity and efficacy of the financial responsibility standards composite scores. Rep. Smucker is interested in solutions to fix the scores, and the GAO witness noted that the Department of Education has the discretion and flexibility to make changes on its own.  Fixing the federal financial responsibility standards has been a longtime NAICU goal, as outlined in its 2012 report.
The chair of the full committee, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), also stressed the need to revisit the cohort default rate as the primary institutional accountability metric given the “gaming” done by schools and consultants to avoid consequences.
The House will continue to hold hearings in the coming weeks and months. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is also working through its process and plans to hold a similar accountability hearing on April 10.

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