Oxymoron of the week: Congress seeks to fix broken Higher Ed system


In an article for Forbes, Tom Lindsay reports on the scope of the student debt problem as a preface to discussing H.R. 4508, legislation introduced by Virginia Foxx (R-NC) to “reform” higher education ostensibly to make it more affordable.

Titled the “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act,” or PROSPER Act, “seeks to reform our outmoded system by which colleges and universities attain accreditation, and on which their receipt of Title IV federal funds depends”:

It would require accrediting bodies to have at least one member from the business world on their board. It also narrows the scope of accreditation evaluation. It would remove a number of burdensome regulations that unfairly target for-profits and online colleges. It would repeal the “gainful employment rule” and forbid the Secretary of Education from creating or enforcing future regulations on the basis of the “gainful employment rule.” It would also permit online schools to obtain state authorization only in states where they have physical locations, rather than in every state in which they have students, as has been previously required.

Of course, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), has praised the PROSPER Act as a “good start,” it has reservations:

NAS fears that the current version of the PROSPER Act “lacks the necessary protections for due process, educational rigor, and other important principles of higher education.” On the one hand, “it takes great strides toward empowering students to report discriminatory speech codes. On the other, it “lacks mechanisms to encourage colleges and universities to adopt policies that adequately protect freedom of speech and expression.” . . .

NAS recommends that Congress authorize the Secretary to investigate the state of free speech and association, including religiously-based association, on campuses. Finally, and most important, it recommends that schools “found to be malfeasant” by the Secretary “should be denied eligibility for Title IV student loans and grants.”

But while the PROSPER ACT reforms accreditation through further federal regulations, Lindsay proposes:

Follow the Constitution and return power over education policy to the entities to whom the Constitution gives that power wholly—the states. On both constitutional and prudential grounds, what is required to salvage our schools are measures that reduce the federal role in higher education. The most direct, least intrusive way to accomplish this is by making state accreditation alone sufficient for receipt of federal funding authorized by Title IV (of the Higher Education Act). This would break the grip of the regional accrediting bodies, which too often have acted as gatekeepers for the higher-education cartel—blocking the entrance of alternative modes of education and therewith stifling needed innovation and cost controls.

Of course, it is completely unsurprising that the “reforms” of higher education proposed in this legislation mainly involve rolling back the regulations put in place to address the most flagrant abuses of the massive, online, predatory for-profit institutions that have been disproportionately responsible for the dramatic increases in student-loan debt and in student-loan defaults. Oh, and for good measure, yes, why not toss in some language on a red-meat talking points on “free speech” just for good measure.

It is also completely unsurprising that the main cause of the student-debt crisis not only goes completely unaddressed but completely unacknowledged. The accreditation system does have inherent issues that ought to be addressed. But, creating a state-by-state accreditation system is completely counterintuitive and will solve nothing. Yes, by all means, let’s give more power over higher education to the states whose dramatic defunding of higher education is the primary cause of the student-debt crisis.

The for-profit institutions will certainly “prosper” again if this legislation is passed, But none of this will help a single student “prosper.” And anyone who buys that it will do so is either being self-servingly duplicitous or willfully stupid.