As they wade into a reworking of the nation’s primary federal higher education law, key lawmakers are issuing broad warnings that they intend to hold colleges and universities to tougher standards for curbing ever-rising tuition, and for turning out competent graduates.
Members of the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce, at a public hearing last week on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, vented frustration at institutions they suggested had shown precious little inclination to control their prices.
And committee lawmakers said that the federal government, as a provider of billions of dollars in annual student loans and grant aid, could take a more direct role in compelling colleges to change.
“Postsecondary [institutions] cannot take the view that they can raise their prices until they are able to pay for what they need, and then rely on the federal government to step in and provide enough funding for every student to attend,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the committee’s chairman, at the May 13 hearing.
GOP lawmakers have begun employing that all-pervasive K-12 buzzword—"accountability"—in describing their renewed expectations of the nation’s colleges. Some federal lawmakers also seem interested in raising demands of institutions at the central juncture between K-12 and higher education: teachers’ colleges.
Given demands in the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 that states hire “highly qualified” teachers, Rep. Boehner and others are exploring ways for the federal government to gauge whether those institutions are producing graduates who meet professional standards, said Alexa Marrero a GOP spokeswoman for the committee. “It’s an area of particular concern,” she said.
The details of any such proposal, and other potential aspects of the HEA reauthorization, are likely to emerge over the next few months, Ms. Marrero said.
The Democratic View
Committee Democrats also suggested that they want to hold colleges to higher standards. But at least one of them, Rep. Dale E. Kildee, of Michigan, said the lawmakers’ primary task is making sure that students won’t be priced out of college.
“Access to postsecondary education should remain our most important goal during reauthorization,” Rep. Kildee said. “Too many of our students have accrued crippling amounts of debt once they leave college,” he later added.
Committee members have seemed most keen on judging the performance of colleges in areas such as the percentage of students who leave school with degrees; whether students graduate on time; how many default on college loans; and schools’ overall affordability, among other standards.
Higher education leaders, however, have cautioned federal lawmakers against trying to dictate the free-market ebb and flow of tuition.
“Concern about competitive marketplace issues such as value, cost, quality, and choice should not be transformed into federal policies that regulate curriculum or establish price controls,” said the American Council on Education, a Washington-based organization representing 1,800 colleges and universities nationwide, in a statement released the day of the hearing.
The committee heard testimony from Charles Miller, the chairman of the University of Texas System’s board of regents. He said colleges and universities could be asked to answer to a “data set” of questions about their performance. Mr. Miller also argued that there ought to be stronger measures of what freshmen and sophomores are learning in college—though he warned that institutions typically resisted such evaluations.
“We don’t know what’s being taught, and what’s being learned,” he said.