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School & District Management Opinion

We Need a Single Standard for Higher Education

By Jonathan Fanton — November 15, 2011 4 min read
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As a former president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, I have worked for years to strengthen education in many countries. I have come to appreciate that the ideal education system in any nation needs to be sufficiently diverse to meet the needs of students from many backgrounds and with varying aspirations for both their lives and future careers.

Here in the United States, the framework for education has slowly evolved to meet the changing needs of American students. Today, we are moving toward an education system that, at all levels, provides a mix of private and public institutions that serve an array of students. By increasing opportunities for students at all levels of education, we can provide them with the ability to pursue the education that is the best fit for them.

Some students attend secondary institutions with low graduation and college-acceptance rates. Instead of acting as though those students have no desire for postsecondary education, we should encourage them to attend institutions of higher education that focus on helping nontraditional students.

Today, for many in our nation, the road to a career does not involve a traditional four-year college. Students from a range of backgrounds are electing to pursue higher education at for-profit colleges, some of them online. More than 3 million students attended accredited colleges and universities in the for-profit private sector in 2008-09. Of those, 40 percent were students of color, and 61 percent were women, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and more than 80 percent of students in for-profit colleges are the first in their families to attend college.

Education has always been a critical source of opportunity, and data show that a college education can dramatically affect an individual’s ability to find a good job to support a family and contribute to the community. This is especially true for students coming from high schools that do not traditionally send large numbers of students to postsecondary institutions.

As the number of students who seek education at for-profit colleges grows, so do controversies. Although the end goal of these institutions is honorable, not all of these schools have operated in an equally honorable manner. It should also be noted that many of the issues that exist at for-profit colleges exist at other institutions of higher education as well.

To encourage appropriate and responsible conduct across all of higher education, there needs to be a higher standard of conduct for institutional operations and accountability among all colleges and universities.

Earlier this year, I joined the board of advisers to the Foundation for Educational Success. One of our charges was to create a single high standard for all institutions of higher education. I joined this effort along with Thomas H. Kean, the former governor of New Jersey; former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell; Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor of education at Harvard University; and Elizabeth Molina Morgan, the executive director of Grad Nation, an initiative of the America’s Promise Alliance.

We recently released standards of responsible conduct and transparency, a set of enforceable principles that not only address public concerns, but also ensure that all students have access to high-quality educational opportunities. The standards define new guidelines, as agreed to by their signatories, which include the Kaplan Higher Education Corp., the Career Education Corp., and Vatterott Educational Centers Inc. The signatories are required to obtain an independent audit of their practices to comply with the standards’ enforcement mechanism.

As the number of students who seek education at for-profit colleges grows, so do controversies."

The standards include provisions for providing information about tuition costs and fees, and graduation and job-placement rates, as well as student debt obligations. The foundation will create a website where students can read about best practices around disclosure, transparency, and academic-readiness counseling.

What is most needed is for colleges to create transparent and enforceable standards of conduct that exceed the existing requirements of academic accreditation bodies, state regulators, and the federal Education Department.

Drawing on my experience as a former college president, I believe that these standards will improve the educational experience for the 3 million students currently enrolled in for-profit colleges, as well as the millions of students who will attend these schools in the years to come. Ultimately, I am confident that these standards can serve as a model for all institutions of higher education.

For-profit colleges play an essential role in educating millions of men and women and helping them enter or return to the workforce. And they help our nation become more competitive in the global economy by equipping students with skills that match job opportunities. The effort to establish standards of best practices deserves our support.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Value of a Single Standard for Higher Education

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