State and Federal Cooperation Can Improve Higher Education Quality

A truth that many of us are taught from a young age is the ability to work well with others is a critical component to success. One consistent life lesson is to develop and nurture a skill set and internal compass that allow us to collectively assemble multiple parts and skills for the benefit of all. While this objective is transferable to numerous areas in life, higher education is not exempt and, in fact, relies on cooperation more than many industries due to its complexity, the multiple players involved, and the potential benefits for the individual, community, state and nation.

Historically, the societal and economic benefits derived from postsecondary education have not been questioned. We know that, on average, college graduates earn much more over their lifetime of employment. We also know that college graduates are more likely to vote, are less likely to be incarcerated, and tend to be more involved in their communities, as well as provide valuable resources to the tax base. These latter benefits, that extend beyond the individual, are referred to as common goods. They help us all. They are a tangible example of the rising tide that lifts all ships.

Although these positive outcomes are more pronounced than ever, recent survey results from Gallup provided some disconcerting news for higher education. Their 2018 survey found that only 48 percent of U.S. adults express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education compared to 57 percent in 2015. This decline is more pronounced when broken down by political affiliation with a 17 percentage point decline among Republicans and a six point decrease for Democrats. These numbers should concern us all and lead us to realize that we must develop strategies and messages to rebuild this confidence. We must work together in order to elucidate the common good derived through higher education, as well as create pathways that present opportunities for all.

Three traditional components that help form a foundation for student opportunity and success are the states, accrediting agencies, and the federal government. Together, they form the regulatory “triad” and possess distinct yet overlapping roles meant to serve students and protect taxpayer investment by providing both a structure and regulatory framework assuring that the needs of all those involved are being recognized and protected. These tasks take place in the midst of a complex and ever-changing national landscape comprised of states that contain their own distinct contexts.

In order to meet the educational and workforce needs of our students and our nation, careful consideration needs to be given to the current operation of the triad with an eye towards pragmatic reform that seeks to better align the three actors and their efforts. In that regard, the role played by the state as institutional authorizer serves as a fulcrum for all activities that follow. Each state has a unique responsibility to assure that the institutions within its purview are equipped to provide the educational programs and outcomes they purport to meet.

The challenge is that each state structure has been developed independently of other states. A taxonomy of state authorization processes indicates a great amount of variance between states. This variance can include their relationship to private for- and non-profit colleges within their states. While most state higher education offices are not involved with the oversight of these private institutions on a day-to-day basis, these same offices are often called upon when an institution has its accreditation revoked, is in danger of losing Title IV eligibility, or has to develop and implement a teach-out plan for a soon-to-be closed institution.

The reality is that the federal government, accreditors and states interact with institutions and the students they serve in very meaningful ways. Each entity has access to a unique perspective and set of data that, when joined with the other two, provide a fuller picture that allows responses to be more proactive rather than reactive. It would benefit all parties involved to facilitate a series of dialogues to frame a clear structure in which each entity better understands its set of responsibilities and, as importantly, how these responsibilities intersect with other organizations to create a coherent and transparent set of processes.

It will take intentional and systematic cooperation between all members of the triad to ensure our nation that postsecondary education continues to be a worthwhile investment. One specific area that all members can begin to address is careful monitoring of indicators signifying institutional stress that may result in closures that in turn impact students and taxpayer investments in an extremely adverse manner. Our willingness to work together, share relevant data and develop proactive strategies will chart a path forward for us all.