THE BLOG
12/06/2010 06:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Students and Taxpayers Deserve Accountability

College choices certainly vary. Some students choose elite schools, some community colleges, some career colleges or schools. What's right for one is wrong for another. Students take many different approaches to making their choice, but some critical elements they each consider are the same. Is the investment of time, money and energy worth the cost? How will education improve their lives? Will they get a job after graduating? And, will they be able to repay their student loans? These questions may linger throughout their college experience.

Many advocacy groups, educators, regulators and politicians are talking about how to help students have clearer answers to those questions ­-- about how to make education more accountable through establishing outcomes benchmarks and providing comprehensive information to students. Most, though, are talking about accountability in every realm except their own, or at their favored institutions. But, selective or indirect regulation of issues of universal concern­ like value, quality and efficacy ­never work properly and usually have unintended consequences. In most industries, our government would strain to avoid selectively regulating accountability for those issues. Unfortunately, that isn't the case when it comes to higher education.

It is almost always the student, and often the taxpayer, who suffers.

A good example is the 'Gainful Employment' rule proposed by the US Department of Education. It purports to help students realize better educational outcomes, but by focusing dominantly on for-­profit institutions and omitting most other programs it will just add to consumer confusion, reduce access to good programs, limit choice and give favored status to government backed public and traditional private colleges.

Let's face some facts: students don't care which institution people in power prefer; neither do
taxpayers. Students care about whether they are getting a fair deal ­and accurate information.
Taxpayers care about whether their 'investment' in education is a good one. Neither students nor taxpayers benefit from piecemeal regulations that constrain one sector of education and ignore the practices of others. If there are good regulations that promote accountability and transparency, then all students at all institutions and all taxpayers should benefit from them. All of us should be very wary of anyone who doesn't favor universal transparency and accountability; that's usually a signal that they're just protecting their own turf.

It's time our country has real accountability and transparency across the entire higher education landscape ­for-­profit, non­profit, public and private.

How?

Through balanced regulatory reform which creates a level playing field across all of higher education. Reform where all students, parents and taxpayers get the same information, and all institutions meet the same minimum outcome standards. Only then will students, taxpayers and quality win. Give some institutions a free pass, and we'll all lose.

We should provide universal consumer information, including graduation rates, post graduation
employment rates, graduate starting salaries, long term graduate earnings, student debt amounts needed to fund education and other key pieces of information. This information is clearly of concern to all students at all institutions.

We should evaluate all career oriented programs' efficacy and set quality benchmarks by using metrics such as those in the above proposed consumer information, with perhaps some variations for academic and liberal arts programs. Students getting a degree in accounting at a career college, state university or community college hope for a job at the end. So do students studying auto repair. Unfortunately, some won't achieve their desired outcome. To respect students' risk of both time and money (and taxpayer risk as well) we must eliminate favoritism in application of accountability measures. There can be no 'sacred cows.'

We should also provide a clear picture of what it costs taxpayers to support various institutions. One where taxpayers and their representatives can determine which institutions are worth supporting. We can do this by including in all cost analyses for taxpayer support of colleges all tax­funded outlays, federal and state, and all affects on tax revenues. Too many analyses are state tax based or federal tax based, but not both. But, every dollar taxpayers pay out, to whatever taxing authority, is one dollar less that they have. Only a comprehensive view respects taxpayers' contribution to supporting the mosaic of public, private, for­profit and non­profit institutions which makes our higher education system strong.

Higher education is an investment ­ for individuals and society. And like any other investment of time and money, it has its benefits, and it has its risks.

Let's help every student, parent and taxpayer understand those benefits and risks and make sound choices in that context. Establishing universal accountability and information disclosure standards is the surest path forward to an education system that benefits everyone.

Randy Proto is the President and CEO of the American Institutes school group, which
specializes in health-care career education and serves over 2,000 students annually. It includes
the American Institute College of Health Professions, American Institute and American Institute
School of Health Careers located in Florida, and the Fox Institute schools in Connecticut and
New Jersey.

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