“Holding Higher Education Accountable” at the American Enterprise Institute

Post by Tanner Huggins and Nathan Thompson (bios), who attended the panel.

On Wednesday the American Enterprise Institute brought together higher education experts and policymakers in a panel aimed at “holding higher education accountable.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) discussed their proposed legislation, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which is intended to provide students with more complete information about the value of the higher education programs they are considering before deciding where to enroll.

Senators Rubio and Wyden said that the bill is aimed at providing coordinated information to students, allowing them to see a more comprehensive institutional profile before making what the legislators called an “ever more consequential decision” on where to pursue higher education. The Senators noted that the federal government’s role in higher education thus far has been centered on increasing access, but now the government must focus on increasing the value of higher education, especially in a climate of increasing tuition costs and ballooning student debt. The bill asks institutions of higher education to reveal, for each degree program offered, the six-year graduation rate and the income-to-debt ratio and earnings potential students should expect after graduation.

The Senators were followed by a panel including Pauline Abernathy of the Institute for College Access & Success, Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Amy Jones of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research. The panel, moderated by Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, engaged in a discussion on how the federal and state governments can “solve the information deficit” that students face when considering their higher education options. (All speaker bios and more information about their organization’s are available on AEI’s event page.)

Tony Carnevale argued that now, as in the past, more education means more lifetime earning potential but the dearth of information on basic metrics of higher education success – graduation rates, average costs and expected debt burden, average earning potentials across programs and majors, and many other factors – means that students are often making investments in higher education with unrealistic expectations of success after graduation. Pauline Abernathy noted that consumers of other goods and services often have clear, concise information on the products they consume – nutrition labels on food and safety and efficiency labels on cars, for example – but such information is unavailable to the “consumers” of higher education. In a volatile labor market where having a degree is no guarantee of success, Abernathy asks to what degree colleges and universities are accountable for graduates’ ability to find a gainful place in the workforce commensurate to their degree and the amount of debt they may have accumulated.

The proposed legislation reveals a growing public awareness of the changing demands on the American workforce, demands that are creating a rapidly-expanding population of non-traditional consumers and providers of higher education. Students considering higher education face more choices today than at any time in the past, and the decisions they make have ramifications throughout their adult lives.

The issues that the panel covered highlight the growing importance of The Saylor Foundation’s mission. When students decide to pursue a degree at most traditional institutions, they are taking a risk –will the degree pay for itself or will they struggle to repay student loans? Will their degree remain relevant, or will they need to pursue additional education in the future? Choosing an education means making an (often significant) investment, but with our flexible array of courses and programs, we’ve lowered the barrier to entry and expanded the possibility for path-discovery; the only investment students must make is their own time, effort, and dedication.

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