Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the University of Maryland Baltimore County on July 27. (Nick Anderson/TWP)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered this week a dual message on accountability in higher education. He said the Obama administration aims to crack down on schools that fail to deliver what they promise to students, but he lamented that politics and bureaucracy in the system of oversight often stymies efforts to get tough on dismal school performance.

In a speech Monday at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Duncan laid out the problem in blunt terms as Congress prepares to revise the nation’s main higher education law. For millions of students, he said, “our higher education system isn’t delivering what they need, or deserve.” When students enroll in college, he said, the chances of a successful outcome — getting a degree — amount to “a coin toss.”

He said the nation must change that but acknowledged: “The challenge we face is easy to articulate, if not to solve.” There is, he said, “a lot of heavy lifting and culture change ahead.”

Here’s the (somewhat mild) crackdown language in the speech:

“We will work with states, colleges, and accreditors in a shared partnership, with clear responsibilities, to increase accountability for student success in higher education. We will strive to reward success, especially where universities are demonstrating their commitment to better serving disadvantaged students. And we will work to protect taxpayers and students from those who seek to take advantage of them.”

Here’s the lament:

In 2006, under a Republican president, the Spellings Commission on Higher Education found—and I quote — ‘a remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating our students.’ Over the past decade, quite frankly not much has changed. Congress delegated the role of quality assurance to accreditors. And Congress, with the support of the higher education lobby, has actually barred the federal government from establishing criteria for accrediting agencies to assess student achievement.”

Duncan took note of a recent Wall Street Journal investigation that found 11 schools with six-year graduation rates below 10 percent. The schools still earned a seal of approval from accreditors.

“Institutions must be held accountable when they get paid by students and taxpayers but fail to deliver a quality education,” Duncan said. “So should states and accreditors who are responsible to oversee them under the law.”

There was more to the 24-minute speech: warnings about rising college costs, praise for efforts to expand access, exhortations for colleges to embrace technological innovation. But the accountability questions were the ones that Duncan underlined.

He also took aim at states, saying that too many are shrinking their funding for public higher education.

“[T]he widespread cutbacks that states have made in their higher education budgets desperately need to be reversed,” he said. “In all, 47 states cut per-student spending between 2009 and 2014, by an average of about 13 percent. Over the past 25 years, state per-student spending is down 25 percent, after adjusting for inflation! For each dollar states put in higher education today, the federal government invests more than two.

“This pattern of state disinvestment — and the expectation that the federal government will cover the shortfall — has to end. States, as well as Washington, need to remember that higher education is a public good.”

In some ways, the administration has gotten tough on college performance. Most notably, it has fought a multi-year battle to tighten oversight of the for-profit education industry, imposing new “gainful employment” rules meant to ensure that for-profit colleges don’t leave students buried in debt they cannot repay. Corinthian Colleges, a large for-profit chain, filed for bankruptcy protection this year, culminating a year-long collapse triggered after its operations came under federal scrutiny.

But there has been pushback from some in Congress and elsewhere who say colleges of all types are burdened by too much federal regulation.

[Are colleges over-regulated?]

Duncan’s speech came a month after the administration dialed back one of its own accountability initiatives. President Obama in August 2013 pledged that the federal government would rate colleges for the first time on measures of value. “What we want to do is rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck,” the president said at the time.

The Education Department studied the issue for more than a year and a half. In June it announced it would not publish ratings but instead give consumers more tools to rate colleges themselves. Those online “tools” are scheduled to be released in the summer.

[Obama administration retreats from college rating plan.]

After his speech Monday, Duncan said there was no disconnect between his call for accountability in higher education and the retreat on federal ratings. The administration, he said, still intends to move forward with providing consumers better information about colleges. “Greater transparency will absolutely drive accountability as well as competition,” Duncan said in a news conference call.

Several college presidents joined Duncan at the speech. UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III said the government needs a better way to measure graduation rates than its current method of tracking full-time, first-time students. Huge numbers of students, he said, are part-timers and transfers. He called graduation rate methodology an “elephant in the room.”

Louisiana State University President F. King Alexander said colleges must provide more transparency about results. “We need to be much more accountable,” Alexander said. “Our parents want outcomes.” Alexander said that families often know more about shopping for cars than about shopping for college. What’s needed, he said, is “a Blue Book for higher education.”