Wednesday, February 09, 2005

How many universities does it take to change a lightbulb?

This morning I spoke to a group of friends of Sallie Mae (the big gun in student loans - created pursuant to a bill originally introduced by one of my former bosses - US Senator Winston Prouty) about accountability. Congressman McKeon has introduced a bill which alleges to change the way colleges and universities are accountable in three areas - the transfer of credit, pricing issues (called college costs) and funding (allowing for profits to derive 100% of their funds from federal sources.

McKeon argues that higher education has raised prices willy nilly. While colleges and universities could do a better job of figuring out how to build budgets and while some of the rises in prices have been a bit high - Buck's solution is wrong headed - report to the Inspector General of USDE and then publish the results (originally he proposed to limit federal student aid funding for institutions whose prices increased by more than 2X of the CPI). Colleges need to communicate more clearly about costs. But why should any change in prices (or the appropriateness of such changes) by correlated to the CPI. In the last several years - with one exception- Congressional spending has exceeded the average change in the rate of tuitions. Part of the increases in tuitions nationally have been caused by changes in assumptions about who should pay in public institutions. Should Congress be under the same gun? That is absurd.

But McKeon does not stop there. He proposes to eliminate a rule which requires that at least 10% of an institution's funding come from non-federal sources. A decade ago some of the for profits got caught ripping off students. The 90/10 rule - which requires at least 10% of funding come from other sources - was created to slow that down. Coupled with some state reforms - the proprietary institutions have improved their performance. Elimination of the rule would bring us back to the prior state.

Finally, there is the transfer of credit issue - it is sometimes hard to transfer among institutions. Indeed, there may be some roadblocks between proprietary and public and independent institutions. But requiring institutions to accept credits from another institution is baloney.

In at least two of these instances - higher education is starting to move - in transfer of credit - institutions are getting better at thinking about how to equate coursework. And on college costs - there are a number of very good ideas in play about how to make higher education finances more transparent - but mandating the standards in federal law is about the worst way to achieve further progress. I guess the old truism is correct - what is the opposite of progress?

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