House Hearing on Graduation Rates

Publication Number 15 July 22, 2004

On July 13, 2004, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce continued its hearings on HR 4283, the Republican proposal to extend the Higher Education Act (HEA). Chair John Boehner (R-OH) opened the hearing, saying: “Students, parents, and taxpayers today are making a huge annual investment in America’s colleges and universities. Today we’re going to look at what they’re getting in return – specifically, at student graduation rates and outcomes.” Boehner expressed alarm at the “graduation gap” as described in a May 2004 report by the Education Trust. He observed: “The graduation gap is, unfortunately, just the latest in a number of troubling signs that America’s colleges and universities aren’t accountable enough to the students they serve. With tuition continuing to climb, America’s higher education consumers are beginning to demand greater transparency.” The cited report can be found on:

Boehner then described his bill and criticized higher education as follows: “I introduced the College Access & Opportunity Act to help empower higher education consumers with the information they need to make their own best decisions about a college or university. Institutions are already reporting volumes of information to the Department of Education. The problem is that parents and students aren’t able to use this information. What we propose is to take that information and put it into the hands of consumers. There are no dramatic new reporting requirements in this legislation – and nearly all the new requirements that are included would apply only to institutions that repeatedly engage in excessive tuition hikes that hurt parents and students. We recognize that when government gets more involved, costs go up – not down. Some lobbying organizations have described our bill differently. They oppose the bill, claiming it would expand government involvement. The same organizations are demanding billions in additional federal funding. What they really mean is they want billions more in taxpayer money, but don’t want to be held accountable for how it is used.”

Four witnesses then presented their views on graduation rates. All agreed that graduation rates are an important (although imprecise) indicator of success. And the witnesses differed on the appropriate use of this indicator. Some stressed that better data and more attention to graduation rates are needed. Others noted that institutional mission was a key consideration and that not all students are seeking a degree.

Fourteen members of the committee made observations and questioned the witnesses. Most of the dialogue on graduation rates emphasized either the causes of variation in rates among institutions or the additional expense of the elements to improve graduation rates, such as more full-time faculty and student services. The witnesses responded that the causes and cures were both multiple and that solutions depended on institutional mission and focusing additional resources on the goal of higher graduation rates.

Perhaps most interesting, and unexpected, were the comments from Congressman “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) about graduation rates. He observed that many community college students do not seek a degree; they take a few courses and that is all that they want. McKeon said that we should not put too much emphasis on graduation rates because there are many ways to measure success in higher education.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Chair Boehner noted that the Committee would continue to work on the HEA legislation to position itself to move quickly in early 2005.

Boehner and McKeon Contact College Campuses

In late June, Congressmen John Boehner and “Buck” McKeon took the unusual step of writing a five-page letter on their bill, HR 4283, to the president of every higher education institution in the country. Stating that “there has been some misinformation circulated about the bill,” their letter sought to “set the record straight and share with you the facts.” The letter details eight major areas, explaining what their bill does NOT do. Two of these speak directly to issues regarding accreditation that have been the topic of several recent editions of the CHEA HEA Update.

The Congressional letter states: “The bill calls for no significant new reporting requirements for institutions.” We respectfully disagree. HR 4283 has extensive new reporting requirements on an institution’s learning objectives for each program, its transfer of credit policies and extensive annual statistics on transfer rates, new data on student outcomes, and a major new ten-part “College Consumer Profile.” In our view, each of these requirements is significant and represents a new reporting burden.

The Congressional letter also states: “The bill does not mandate institutional policies for transfer of credit.”Again, we respectfully disagree. HR 4283 says that institutions must have specified policies on transfer, which include that transfer decisions “shall be decided on the basis of whether courses or programs are determined by the institution to be acceptable for credit in accordance with objective criteria that the institution publicly discloses and the student completed such course or program at the institution’s required level of proficiency.”Institutions that do not comply with this mandate would risk their participation in federal student aid programs. In our view, this proposal is a direct and statutory mandate on institutional policies for credit transfer.

Chronicle Covers HEA Accreditation Issues

The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 16, 2004) featured a front-page story on accreditation issues in the HEA. The extensive article built upon contacts with a number of sources, including CHEA. In one significant respect, we feel that the article erred in reporting our views. It stated, incorrectly, that CHEA opposes HR 4283.

CHEA, like many other higher education associations, has advised the Committee on its views of HR 4283. We support several of its key accreditation provisions and oppose others. In particular, we support limited changes in student achievement, in quality assurance in distance education, and in providing more information about the results of accreditation reviews. And we have provided the Committee with extensive and concrete suggestions on how to improve their bill. We hope to continue work with the Committee as the legislative consideration moves forward.

We have written to the Chronicle asking that they correct this error.