Higher education needs more accountability for success. Rich colleges that refuse to enroll a fair share of low-income students should be cut off from federal work-study and loan subsidies, and have their research dollars put under review. Institutions that persistently fail to graduate fewer students than peer institutions with similar missions and student bodies should also be put on notice. The “gainful employment” measures that were developed for programs in for-profit colleges should be extended to programs at all colleges. The most common degree in American higher education is the bachelor’s degree in business. It seems fair to assume that most business majors plan on working in businesses. We should find out if they actually succeed in that goal, and ask hard questions of colleges that load students up with debt but don’t prepare them to earn enough money to pay those loans back.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, must be told that the free ride of college budget cutting is over. The U.S. Department of Education should establish new standards of state support for higher learning, and set deadlines for states that don’t meet them. The prospect of losing federal student aid and research money would galvanize state business leaders and college officials to fight budget cuts that are currently being passed along to families who can ill afford them.
It would be easy to let the great American higher education compact gradually crumble under the weight of expediency and institutional ambition. We know this because the process is already under way. But that kind of shortsighted thinking isn’t what built America’s best colleges, and it won’t give us all the system of higher learning we badly need.
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