The college admission scandal from earlier this year has reinvigorated a debate surrounding our country’s higher education system and prompted critical conversations on not only equity and access to higher education, but also accountability and transparency on the part of institutions that accept taxpayer money. And, while the scandal and the federal investigation have us questioning who has access to a fair admissions process, there are systematic concerns and challenges built into our higher education system at all levels.
It is easy to shine the spotlight on the headline-grabbing celebrities taking advantage of the college admissions process at our nation’s most prestigious institutions, but doing so overlooks the majority of degree-seeking individuals that do not attend elite colleges. To truly address the opportunity gap in higher education, we should be focusing on those students left behind, often at the hand of institutions not suited to respond to student needs.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development, I have supported programs pursued by the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, and other financial supports enacted by the Arizona Legislature that have tremendously helped students, particularly assisting those in need to overcome the cost barrier. But we have additional challenges, especially for students who ultimately get into college.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, some schools in Arizona, which are providing higher education programs, are unable to graduate half of their first time, full-time students within six years. Oftentimes, those students also make less than the average high school graduate. Consequently, upon graduation, students are then faced with overly burdensome student debt, whereby they struggle to make ends meet. Arizona’s high school graduates should enter college with a reasonable expectation of receiving a quality education, leaving them better off than they were with a high school diploma.
Once schools are accredited, they can continue to receive federal funding – regardless of graduation rates or whether students can earn the necessary income to meet the debt payments for student loans.
We need to change how our higher education system operates and we can start with specific accountability and transparency efforts. As Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year, it should be a top priority to include measurements and thresholds that institutions need to meet in order to receive federal funds – the very spigot that now makes up 7.5% of our nation’s GDP and nearly 10% of our nation’s debt An institution’s ability to call upon federal supports for loans to its students ought to be directly tied to the success of the students they graduate – on-time and with degree programs that position them for jobs where they can pay off debt.
We should also take steps to provide additional funds to support institutions committed and willing to close these existing completion gaps. A competitive grant program for institutions serving above-average percentages of vulnerable populations can help schools identify their gaps and propose a plan using evidence-based practices to close them.
Our federal delegation has always been a leader in higher education reform in Congress and it is my hope they can work across the aisle to ensure we see comprehensive reform as the Higher Education Act undergoes its reauthorization on Capitol Hill.
As we continue the broader conversation of higher education, we cannot lose focus on the students getting left behind. If anything, the past year has shown us just how important accountability and transparency are to institutions helping shape the next generation.
Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, serves Legislative District 15.