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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Higher Ed Know-Nothingism



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Under the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, the federal government is explicitly barred from creating a student unit record system. The argument against a student unit record system is that it represents a threat to student privacy. Yet as Kevin Carey has explained, building a student unit record system wouldn’t lead to the disclosure of personal information concerning particular students. Rather, it would allow the federal government to release information concerning, for example, the share of Pell Grant students who graduated from a particular college in six years or less. And this information could provide invaluable guidance for parents and students. If College A graduates a large majority of its Pell Grant students in six years or less while College B does not, parents and students might think twice about choosing College B over College A. This in turn would create a powerful incentive for College B to reform its practices, and it would invite greater scrutiny from taxpayers who are wasting far more money on subsidies to College B than to College A.

But why would College B want to subject to this kind of scrutiny, particularly when the alternative is to continue receiving large sums of money on a no-strings-attached basis? What makes matters much worse is that College Bs outnumber College As, and so they have tremendous political clout. Carey argues that this desire to avoid scrutiny is why the higher education industry has been so adamant in opposing the creation of a student unit record system. And according to Amy Laitinen, the federal student unit record ban is now crippling efforts to enforce new Gainful Employment (GE) regulations that are designed to provide parents and students with data on whether or not higher education institutions are offering value for money. The GE regulations are from far perfect (e.g., they focus on for-profit higher education and not the entire higher education sector, which is foolish), but they are an important safeguard, as Laitinen makes clear:

GE programs that are engaging in educational malpractice will not have to share this information with prospective students. This is terrible news for students in those programs. At least there was a brief moment in which it looked like at least some students would get critical information so they could make informed decisions about where to go to school. But now even that little bit of transparency and accountability is gone.

Given the strong and growing support on both sides of the aisle for greater transparency in all of higher education (whether for-profit, nonprofit, or public), the court’s decision should be an immediate wake-up call to Congress to repeal the ban.

Conservatives should be leading the charge for higher education transparency, and at least some Republican lawmakers, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have been making this case. Rather disappointingly, the sponsor of the original student unit record ban is North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx, who chairs the House Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee. In my ideal world, this would be grounds for a primary challenge. 



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