Higher Education Leaders Wary of Increased Federal Oversight

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Ellen McCulloch-Lovel

Marlboro College President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell hears a “centralizing” approach when government staffers talk.

WASHINGTON — Despite the largeness of the audience they addressed this week at the NAICU annual meeting, all of the fresh-faced Congressional staffers and Obama Administration officials who spoke about federal efforts to hold colleges accountable declared their remarks “off-the-record.”

But to the extent that you can trust that a room full of college presidents and other senior administrators were listening intently, you can still get a good sense of where these young politicos were coming from — or at least where their “bosses” were coming from — based on the responses from the attendees, including some who indicated they were former Congressional staffers themselves.

“As I listen to you and listen to your agenda, I’m beginning to hear a centralizing, top down force out of the concern that we all share for affordability, for student success, for graduation rates, for giving students the ability to thrive in their lives after they arrive (on campus),” Marlboro College President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell told the speakers during the Q-and-A session of the panel talk, titled, “Holding Colleges Accountable: A View from Key Capitol Hill and Administration Staff.”

McCulloch-Lovell said the Congressional staffers spoke as if “we have to solve a problem” in higher education.

She was joined in her criticism by C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, who noted how most of the student loan defaults and lackluster completion rates the staffers lamented were “primarily and disproportionately” concentrated among for-profit colleges, not the private nonprofits that were represented at the annual meeting of NAICU, an acronym for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Statistics support that view.

According to “The Condition of Education,” an online resource maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the six-year graduation rate at private nonprofit institutions was 65 percent, compared with 56 percent at public institutions and 28 percent at private for-profit institutions.

As for default rates, for the fiscal year 2008 cohort, the default rates were highest at private for-profit two-year institutions at 12 percent, and private for-profit four-year institutions at 11 percent, but lowest at private not-for-profit and public four-year institutions, each with 4 percent.

McCulloch-Lovell and Jones addressed their comments collectively to the panelists:

  • Ajita Talwalker, special assistant to Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter;
  • Libby Masiuk, education policy advisor for the majority staff at the Senate HELP Committee, which is chaired by retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa);
  • Brian Melnyk, professional staff member for the majority at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is chaired by U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.); and
  • Rich Williams, education policy advisor for U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), senior democratic leader for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

 

McCulloch-Lovell prefaced her remarks by saying she understands the position the young staffers are in because she once worked as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) from 1983 to 1994.

But that did not stop her from critiquing the staffers’ “bosses,” whom she suggested are “experiencing kind of a lag time.”

“I think we’ve got the message, and I think collectively, we are doing everything we can to cut costs, be efficient, keep our quality high and come up with the lowest possible increases in tuition and to increase student aid,” McCulloch-Lovell said. “And I’m wondering if part of what needs to go on with the administration and Congress is catching up on all of our actions and our innovations, because I hear this federal government’s urge to regulate more, and one of the reasons we’re having trouble with our costs is regulations and the cost of regulation.”

Her comment about the cost of regulation drew a hearty applause.

McCulloch-Lovell also took exception with the staffers’ repeated references to “return on investment” when they spoke of federal tax dollars being used to support higher education.

“I’m also hearing a kind of consumerist ‘return on investment’ kind of language that makes me a little afraid, because the return on investment for higher education is not only jobs that help people advance their lives and have families and become good participants in society,” McCulloch-Lovell said. “It’s also the perspective and knowledge that helps us reanimate our democracy.

“I want to know what you mean by ‘return on investment.’”

All of the speakers gave various answers, but — as per their request — their comments were off the record.

In summary, however, the staffers collectively stated that the issue of “return on investment” emanates from fact that as providers of what they said was some $170 billion in federal aid to higher education, federal policymakers bear special responsibility for ensuring quality in the academic “enterprise.”

They also said that as students take on high-stakes risk when they invest in a college education, that it’s a matter of concern when students are unable to get jobs that justify the investment and enable them to pay off their student loans.

The staffers also said they welcome input on how to reduce the regulatory burden to colleges and universities.

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