Holding higher education accountable (but some schools more than others)

Two stories that have been floating around in the last week haven’t really been connected in most media coverage, but they should have been.

The first is the US Department of Education’s website designed to “increase transparency” by providing prospective students with information on college costs – including tuition and fees and rates of increases over the past few years.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the hope is to keep students from being “saddled with unmanageable debt.”

Another story is the ongoing effort to exterminate for-profit colleges – the Strayers and Phoenixes of the world.  Last month the Obama Administration promised new rules on for-profits; earlier this week several Democrat Senators pounded their chests and released a statement condemning schools that exploited GI Bill benefits after they saw a story it on PBS.  (Of course, now that a statement has been released, the problem is sure to be cleared up.)

As a sidebar: When did seeing something on TV become a reason to make a statement?  Shouldn’t there be more study and consideration that goes into an official statement?

The Senators’ statement comes a few weeks after the Obama Administration promised to regulate for-profit colleges.  These so-called educational institutions, it seems, receive large amounts of federal funding through student aid programs and other grants but often leave students with student loan payments and questionable career prospects.

If that sounds familiar, it should, because that’s how just about every other institution of higher learning operates.

Tuitions and fees at saintly non-profit colleges have skyrocketed in the past several decades precisely because the cost of education has been so subsidized – from easy student loan programs to Pell grants to federal work study programs that pay two thirds of a student worker’s wage.  (Another sidebar: It just dawned on me that, due to the Federal Work Study program I once ran a snack bar with federal aid.  That means federal tax dollars went toward making sure people in Coolidge Hall at UMass got exceptional grilled cheese sandwiches served to them.  Suddenly, the existence crippling deficit makes a little bit more sense.)

How much have tuition rates risen?  Enough to motivate the Department of Education to launch a website so that students could keep score and avoid overpriced schools.  It’s a good thing those schools aren’t making money, too, or they’d be facing new regulations, too.



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