Speeches & Floor Statements

Hearing Statement: Strengthening Accountability to Protect Students and Taxpayers

Posted on April 10, 2019

Chairman Alexander Opening Statement

Accountability Hearing

April 10, 2019


The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will please come to order.

Senator Murray and I will each have an opening statement, and then we will introduce the witnesses. After the witnesses' testimony, senators will each have 5 minutes of questions.

When I was president of the University of Tennessee, I asked David Gardner, who was then president of the University of California, why his university was considered one of the best in the world. He told me:  

First, autonomy. We basically have four branches of government, he said, and one of them is the University of California.

Second, competition and choice – large amounts of state and federal money following students to the campus of their choice.

Third, a commitment to excellence by institutional leaders and faculty.

As a former university president, I am very much aware that despite that autonomy, our country’s 6000 colleges and universities report to a lot of bosses – they are accountable to a great many individuals, boards, governments and other entities.

First, they are accountable to the students who may take their federal and state grants and loans to any accredited institution that will admit them;

Next, to 44 federally recognized accrediting agencies whose certification of quality is necessary before institutions are allowed to accept students who bring $30 billion in new Pell grants and $100 billion in in federal student loans each year;

To ensure that these billions of dollars are spent wisely, the federal government measures how many students default on their loans;

For the 80 percent of students who attend public colleges and universities, states have governors, state legislators, laws, and state higher education authorities;

Every institution, public or private, also has its own board of trustees or directors;

And in addition, there are specific federal rules for the for-profit institutions, which about five percent of students attend, in order to stop fraud against students and taxpayers;

And when making a list of bosses, no former university president should leave out the faculty – most faculty members I have known take great pride in maintaining institutional excellence.

So any president of an American higher education institution has a lot of bosses and a lot of people to whom he or she is accountable.

And that has been a mostly successful approach:

Most surveys show that the United States has most of the best colleges and universities in the world.  

The dream of many of the best students from around the world is to attend American colleges and universities.

Still, I hear often from students asking if college is worth their time and money.

I believe there are steps we can take to make our higher education institutions more accountable – to provide those students, and the taxpayers backing their loans, with a clear yes, college is worth it.

In March, at our first bipartisan hearing during this Congress on updating the Higher Education Act, we looked at how to simplify how 20 million families apply for federal student aid.

Last week, we held a bipartisan hearing about how to create a safe environment for students attending college.

Today’s hearing will be looking at ways to ensure that students are earning degrees worth their time and money and that taxpayers are paid back the hundreds of billions that they have loaned students to earn degrees.

To hold colleges accountable for the $130 billion a year in grants and loans, in 1990, Congress created the Cohort Default Rate, which applies to all colleges and universities.

This measure makes a college ineligible to receive federal student aid if, for three consecutive years, more than 30 percent of its borrowers are in default or over 40 percent in any one year.

However this cohort default rate has proven to be a poor instrument of accountability, since it does not take into account the one third of borrowers who are not yet in default but don’t make payments on time.

Over the last decade, only 20 schools have become ineligible for federal student aid under the Cohort Default Rate, according to the Congressional Research Service.

And then there are two federal accountability rules that apply only to for-profit institutions.  

One, the 90-10 rule, which requires that at least ten percent of a for-profit’s revenue come from non-federal sources; and

Two, the Gainful Employment Rule, which looks at how much debt a graduate has compared to his or her salary.  

This comparison of debt to salary has proved to be a confusing and ineffective measure of accountability because it is too complex and does not account for students who take out loans but do not complete their degrees.

So we need a more effective measure of accountability.

But I do not want the federal government acting as a sort of National School Board for Colleges — telling states and accreditors and boards of directors at institutions how to manage the 6,000 colleges and universities.

Four years ago, this Committee passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which reversed the trend towards a national school board for elementary and secondary education.

For the same reasons, Washington should resist the urge to send thousands of federal bureaucrats to evaluate our colleges and universities, which would, in effect, create a national school board for colleges.

Instead, Congress should create a new measure of accountability that looks at whether students are actually repaying their loans.  

This would be a more effective and simpler way to ensure that taxpayers aren’t financing degrees that are priced so high and worth so little that students are never able to pay back their loans.

This proposal is much like the Gainful Employment Rule – but it would apply to every program at every college – public, private, and for-profit and would include students who took out loans but dropped out before graduating.

For some programs, this new measure should provide colleges with an incentive to lower tuition and help their students stay in school to finish their degrees and find a job so they can repay their loans.

A second step to improve accountability would be for the federal government to make the data it collects from colleges more useful to students and families.  

The Department has struggled for years under all administrations to make such information easily accessible to students and families.

As we work on updating the Higher Education Act, we first need to identify what information schools actually need to report, and second to  provide direction to the Department on how to make that information accessible and useful to students.

And third, we should strengthen the 44 federally recognized accrediting agencies upon which we rely for certifying that students are receiving a quality education.

For example, instead of requiring that accreditors have a standard of “student achievement,” Congress could more clearly require that accreditors measure whether students are both learning and succeeding, but leave the specific ways of measuring those to accreditors and institutions.

Our goal needs to be to help students know that their degrees are going to be worth their time and money and to help taxpayers know that the federal government isn’t financing programs that do not provide students with a valuable education.