The feds are right to hold higher-ed to higher scrutiny

Federal loan funds should go only to colleges and universities that leave their students better off than if they’d never enrolled at all. But because of an intense lobbying effort in Washington, schools have done a masterful job of fending off accountability.

As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, higher education has more lobbyists than any sector but drug manufacturing and high tech. Colleges and universities also enjoy a lot of natural good will. They have politically active alumni. Even marginal schools can be major employers in their host communities. When college presidents want to bring a grievance to members of Congress, they tend to get a sympathetic hearing.

The federal government is spending $161 billion a year on aid to students, and it’s only reasonable to try to assess whether the money is advancing students’ academic and economic interests — and the broader national interest in a more educated workforce and citizenry — rather than propping up programs of questionable value. But as the Journal noted, the industry has defeated efforts to tighten accreditation rules and gather more information about graduation rates.


Most recently, the higher-ed lobby batted down an Obama administration effort to rate universities according to whether their students graduated, paid back their loans, and got jobs. Schools argued that no such system could capture each institution’s unique circumstances.

In reality, they’re deploying lofty rhetoric for the self-interested purpose of avoiding meaningful scrutiny. What schools are telling the government is: Don’t even try. Just keep writing those checks.

Even with schools’ full cooperation, developing metrics for which colleges should be cut off would be difficult. As industry lobbyists diligently point out, it’s hard to compare an elite research university with a small college that operates on a shoestring budget and serves only students of modest means. Even unemployed, debt-ridden graduates of any given institution may still relish the time they spent there. But the federal government needs to draw lines somewhere, and singling out schools whose students can’t pay their bills, don’t get their degrees, and can’t find jobs is a good place to start.


Alas, the defense of the status quo occurs on a bipartisan basis. Conservatives have portrayed the administration’s crackdown earlier this year on for-profit schools with low loan-repayment rates — a policy any sane lender would pursue — as an ideologically motivated attack on legitimate businesses. Meanwhile, the suggestion that schools should answer for the employability of their graduates inflames ivory-tower liberals who insist that higher education isn’t merely a job-training program.

Of course it isn’t, but that’s not what’s at issue here. The question is what kind of outcomes the federal government should be lending money to support. By lobbying against even the modest quality-control measures pushed by the Obama administration, colleges and universities are enabling the institutions that do the worst job of educating students and bring discredit upon the entire sector.