American higher education sells hope. Advertisements for colleges often feature smiling students, many times in a cap and gown with a diploma in hand. The primary message? A college degree provides opportunity.
But in recent years, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of quality control mechanisms in higher education as institutions struggled with low graduation rates and scores of graduates failed to pay off their loans after earning degrees with little value in the job market.
For eight years starting in 2009, the Obama administration attempted to strengthen consumer protections in higher education through a series of new regulations. First, officials tightened oversight of for-profit colleges, requiring them to demonstrate that their graduates earned enough money to repay their loans. Second, the administration released a slew of new data on colleges and the outcomes of their graduates in an online tool called the College Scorecard, which was designed to help students and parents make better decisions.
Obama was a frequent critic of higher education on the bully pulpit, often warning college leaders that they couldn’t just keep raising their tuition prices and expect to receive more federal aid. Concerned that colleges weren’t delivering on their promises to students, Obama’s Education Department also shepherded through a rule that allows student-loan borrowers to make fraud claims and have the federal government discharge their loans.
The bevy of new regulations angered college officials, who historically have favored Democrats in the White House and Congress because they typically opened the purse strings for higher education. But in a survey of college presidents by Inside Higher Ed last year, campus leaders gave Obama’s higher-education policies a grade of C.
So the news this week that President Trump has asked Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. to lead a panel on reform of higher education regulations was probably greeted enthusiastically by many college presidents.
“In the Department of Education, there’s too much intrusion into the independent accreditation,” Falwell told The Washington Post. “There’s too much intrusion into the operation of universities and colleges. I’ve got a whole list of concerns. It mainly has to do with deregulation.”
Falwell singled out accreditation because the Obama administration pushed for tougher standards for accreditors. Last year, an advisory board within the Education Department voted to strip one of the largest accreditors in the country of federal recognition because of its lax oversight.
Accreditors are supposed to maintain quality college in higher education, but since they are run and financed by the colleges themselves, there has been some concern that they haven’t been tough enough on the bad players in higher education. Colleges prefer a hands-off approach, so they would welcome reforms by Falwell in this area.
But students and parents shouldn’t. A college education is what economists call an “experience good,” meaning you don’t know what you’re buying until after you experience it. Picking the right college, the right major, or the right classes is difficult because students and parents lack the basic tools to make bottom-line comparisons between options.
The result is a process in which students make important decisions informed largely by friends and family, slick marketing materials from colleges and sometimes bad advice. In the absence of reasonable regulations and good data, colleges will continue to profit from a process where students are constantly at a disadvantage.
Falwell’s Liberty University is one such institution that has benefited from this imbalance in information, at least until Obama’s College Scorecard exposed what consumers should have known all along about Liberty and other colleges.
41% of Liberty students earn less than $25,000 per year (what high school graduates make) six years after enrolling.
— Kevin Carey (@kevincarey1) January 31, 2017
As Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at the New America Foundation, pointed out in a series of tweets on Wednesday, only 38 percent of Liberty borrowers manage to pay down as little as one dollar on their student loan principal within three years of leaving school. What’s more, 41 percent of former Liberty students earn less than $25,000 annually six years after enrolling.
This is critical information students and parents deserve to know about Liberty and hundreds of other colleges and universities. Choosing a college and paying for higher education is already enough of an anxiety-ridden process for students. We shouldn’t make it worse by taking away the very tools that help students make their decision nor the rules that protect what will likely turn out to be the largest investment of a person’s lifetime.