US Department of Education asked for feedback on plans to publish

In January, the US Department of Education asked for feedback on plans to publish lists of college programs with low financial scores to students and asked for opinions on what factors agencies should consider when compiling rankings.

The announcement echoes an earlier idea by the Obama administration, which laid out a plan to assess all US colleges and embarrass lower-ranked institutions that burden students with debt they can’t afford. The system never came to fruition amid heavy criticism, echoes heard in repairs about a stripped-down version of the new Biden administration.

The Department of Education has given the public until February 10 to provide feedback. Commentary poured in from every corner of the higher education sector, including policy advocates, student lending and groups representing private and public tertiary institutions. Although many have warned of support for the list and offered ideas for how it should be created, other influential groups have rejected the idea altogether.

Those opposed include the higher education lobby group, the American Council on Education. ACE President Ted Mitchell, former undersecretary of the Department of Education during the Obama administration, wrote on behalf of nearly two dozen higher education organizations, including those representing land grants, community colleges, financial aid administrators, and student affairs officials.

While Mitchell applauds the Department of Education’s goal of ensuring colleges don’t leave students with burdensome levels of debt, he argues that it’s impossible to establish a metric that will determine the value of programs across different colleges.

Some of the challenges were technical — Mitchell contended that the data systems available to the Department of Education were incomplete and would not provide sufficient information to accurately determine the outcome of a particular program. But most importantly, says Mitchell, the value of college programs cannot be reduced to mere financial value.

«We share the Department’s desire to help inform students and shed light on bad actors,» Mitchell wrote. «But unless significant data gaps and underlying weaknesses can be ironed out, moving forward with such a listing as a public tool intended for consumer information is likely to do far more harm than good.»

Who endorses the list?
Other groups voiced full support for publishing the list.

Public policy experts from Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization, argue that too many students who graduate from the program are unable to find jobs and pay their loans. They also point to research showing that Americans are increasingly skeptical about the value of higher education.

These problems may worsen due to recent federal policies. For example, if President Joe Biden can push through his plan to write off massive amounts of student debt, colleges can «seize the opportunity» to increase their tuition fees to get more federal financial aid, says Arnold Ventures expert, Clare McCann’s higher education associate and deputy president of education Kelly McManus.

They say the same could happen with changes to income-driven payment plans, which allow borrowers to get their loans forgiven after they make a certain number of payments based on their income. Experts predict the recent regulatory proposals will greatly increase the number of borrowers who do not fully repay their federal student loans.

Increased transparency — along with stricter regulations — can help students avoid lower-quality programs, says policy expert Arnold Ventures. They suggest that the Ministry of Education rely on two ways to measure the financial value of programs: the debt-to-income ratio of borrowers and whether their income is at least equal to that of local high school graduates.

«Debt-to-income levels effectively identify programs that put students in too much debt for their education programs,» they wrote. “The income threshold effectively identifies programs in which students are no better off than they might have been if they had never enrolled in college.”

What else is needed?
Not all commenters put forth the same suggested steps. Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, an online institution with about 140,000 full-time students, thinks the Department of Education should use metrics to measure the return on investment of programs.

Western governors, for example, partly measure program returns by looking at graduates’ average salary increases two years after they complete their credentials. University size also takes into account how much programs cost and how many years a student has left until they reach retirement age. Nearly 9 in 10 West Governor students are aged 25 and over, according to federal data.

«WGU caps earnings at two years post-graduation to narrow the window believed to be associated with earning a degree,» Pulsipher wrote. “The appropriate attribution window may vary by program, but should be limited to a reasonable timeframe given that the current workforce is constantly reskilling and upskilling.”

Others have floated the idea of ​​considering programs that prepare students for important social roles but don’t provide a large income, such as social workers and K-12 teachers.

David Schejbal, president of Excelsior University, an online college of about 17,000 students, proposes using a «social value multiplier» for programs leading to this type of work. In essence, the Department of Education will double the salaries of graduates of certain programs when listing «to assess their holistic value and take into account social impact and employment import.»

For example, writes Schejbal, the social value of a school teacher can be four or five times the salary they receive. For a teacher making $40,000 per year, that will translate to a holistic value of up to $160,000.

Schejbal acknowledged that these metrics would not help eradicate programs that made students worse off.

«Clearer learning outcomes, focus on competence, and other metrics should be developed to identify poor programs that fail to properly educate students, regardless of the academic field or salary they command,» he wrote.