Student Perspectives on Quality and Accountability

Washington D.C. policy experts, government officials, groups representing thousands of colleges nationwide, and dozens of other stakeholders have been debating how to evaluate and ensure the quality of educational programs and the government’s role in doing so for years. However, despite the high levels of time and money students invest in our postsecondary education system, students’ perspectives on what constitutes a quality higher education program— and how the government should work to ensure that quality—are often left out of the discussion. We haven’t been listening to the people with the most at stake: students.

To fill this void, Young Invincibles set out last year to speak with young people, most of them current students, about school quality and what they thought a fair system to reward good actors and hold bad actors accountable should look like. We heard from a diverse, nationwide group of highly-engaged young people about their aspirations for college, who they consider responsible for success or failure, and how to design federal and state policy to protect students, hold institutions receiving public dollars accountable for their outcomes, and advance larger goals of equity and social mobility.

When talking to young people, some interesting themes emerged:

Shared responsibility for student success. Contrary to negative stereotypes, students see themselves as equally responsible for their success in higher education, sharing responsibility with institutions and the government.

Success is measured in degree completion, workforce outcomes, and loan repayment. Students view success in college as completing a degree, landing a good job, and repaying their loans. Accountability policies should measure and promote those priorities.

Students experience the financial challenges of their institutions first-hand and are skeptical of immediately eliminating funding. Students experience the financial effects of tight budgets, through facilities in need of repair and overenrolled classes; these perceptions made the students we talked to wary of cutting off funds for struggling institutions, although most cited exceptions for institutions that explicitly promise to prepare students for the workforce.

On the whole, students deeply care about improving diversity, as both a means for closing inequities, but also a valuable aspect of a student body. Students valued the socioeconomic and demographic diversity of their institutions and believed higher education’s mission is to improve social and economic mobility and reduce inequalities of race and ethnicity. They strongly held that institutions should be measured and held accountable for advancing racial equity and socioeconomic mobility.

Institutions can’t be measured in a vacuum. Students consider it unfair and naive to measure student outcomes without taking into account the disadvantages students bring into an institution and might face after leaving college. This means rewarding institutions that excel at serving those most deserving of support, such as low-income and first-generation college goers and other underrepresented students.

Institutional mission matters. While students consistently value the economic outcomes from college, students saw clear distinctions between different types of institutions and thought different missions should come with different accountability mechanisms. Specifically, students thought that career and vocational programs, regardless of sector, should be evaluated for the debt levels of salaries of their graduates, whereas institutions with a more academic focus could be measured on a more comprehensive set of criteria, including economic outcomes, but also citizenship and advancing the public good.

As outlined above, students do have educated opinions about how our system should ensure quality and accountability. Young Invincibles took these perspectives and published a report – “Maximizing Student Success: A Student-Driven Platform for Higher Ed Accountability” – to synthesize what we heard. Some of these proposals are bold and new, while others are already formalized in legislation. Most are related to federal policy, while some lay out principles for state legislatures to consider. But at the end of the day, all are consistent with the aspirations and perspectives of actual college students.

YI has taken some of the ideas supported by young people and developed a risk-sharing model designed to respond to those policies with the following characteristics:

  • Charge institutions new fees for loans that students are unable to repay.  The fee would be calculated by taking a percentage on every dollar of federal student loan debt that students used to attend that institution that has not been in repayment for ninety days. Rather than the federal government solely benefitting from this fee, a portion will be used to lower the loan balances of students that attended that institution, providing borrower relief. Students already face the most risk in higher education, so a real “risk-sharing” program should provide students a portion of the benefit created to mitigate that risk.  
  • Create a bonus grant program to incentivize institutions to enroll and graduate low-income or otherwise disadvantaged students. Legislation would charge the Department of Education with building an award formula that incorporates the number, percent, and growth of low-income or otherwise disadvantaged students enrolled at an institution. The grant program could be funded through the risk-sharing fees described above, as well as fees imposed on institutions with success rates below 33 percent, described below.
  • Enforce “success” threshold of 33 percent (at least one-third of students retained, graduated, or transferred) for all Title IV institutions, a threshold currently held to new institutions. Institutions will pay a fee equal to one percent of their total Title IV receipts for each percentage point below the threshold.

In addition to reforms embodied in the risk-sharing proposal above, students want more information about workforce outcomes, at the programmatic level, delivered early in their college search process. Students also specifically support the preservation of the Gainful Employment rule, and that believe that equity should be at the heart of any accountability policy. While skeptical of cutting off funds for struggling institutions, students believe higher education should be accountable to their mission of generating opportunity for students. They also believe that institutions that explicitly promote career education should be more strictly evaluated whether they are fulfilling that promise.

Given the reality that most students are financially responsible for their education, any future discussions about higher education accountability policy must always incorporate student perspectives. Furthermore, any system to ensure quality and accountability will be more effective and durable if it has buy-in from the millions of students who will be relying upon it. When the calendar turns to 2019 and Higher Education Act reauthorization begins again, anyone creating quality and accountability solutions should ask students what they want and need: it turns out they have a lot to say.

Tom Allison is the Deputy Policy & Research Director at Young Invincibles, and Reid Setzer is the organization’s Government Affairs Director.