Duncan’s higher education legacy

Courtesy U.S. Department of Education

As Arne Duncan, one of the longest-serving Secretaries of Education, announces his forthcoming resignation, observers are starting to reflect on his impact on education policy in the nation. Duncan will most likely be remembered more for his focus on K-12 education, not surprising given his background as the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, third-largest school district in the country. In that domain, he was known mostly for extending the Bush-era focus on accountability via testing. And it was that focus that led him to be reviled by many in traditional K-12 schools. As education historian and commentator Diane Ravitch wrote in the Huffington Post recently, “It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan’s policies have inflicted on public education.”

It is likely that Duncan’s influence on higher education will be remembered by most with more mixed feelings. While it may seem like a somewhat distant memory, we should not lose sight of the fact that Duncan (and Obama) took office in the midst of the worst recession this country had seen since the Great Depression. Educational institutions, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, were particularly hard hit by the recession, as spending on public education is a discretionary item in every state budget. State appropriations for higher education fell from just under $6,000 per student in 2008 to a low of $4,834 per student in 2013, a cut of almost 20 percent.

Support for higher ed funding

President Obama and Secretary Duncan worked hard to push passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) through Congress. The ARRA funds helped prop up state budgets that were hard hit, and spending on higher education by the states was bolstered by these funds. Over 6 percent of the money states spent on higher education in FY2010, in the depths of the recession, came from federal stimulus spending.

Duncan also advocated for maintaining federal spending on Title IV student aid during the recession, a critical source of support for the millions of students who enrolled in college as job opportunities dried up. With the pressure on the federal budget, it would have been easy for Congress to passively allow the value of the maximum Pell Grant to erode. But the Secretary, with the support of President Obama, advocated for the importance of Pell Grants not just for students, but for recovery of the national economy, and the maximum Pell Grant level was increased a small amount during the recession.

A push for accountability

Beyond this support for funding for higher education, Secretary Duncan will most likely be remembered for actions he and the Department took to hold higher education institutions more accountable for their use of public dollars. In Obama’s first term, the Department focused on strengthening the Gainful Employment regulations. These regulations, which affect postsecondary programs that are vocationally-oriented and lead to specific jobs, had been on the books since the 1990s. But they had been fairly loose and rarely enforced.

The Department of Education proposed a new set of Gainful Employment regulations, and Secretary Duncan was a visible presence in arguing why they were needed. This resulted in strong pushback from higher education institutions, particularly those in the for-profit sector, where most of the impacted programs resided. After a delay, the regulations – which would have forced colleges to close programs with high default rates and/or low salaries for their graduates – were eventually issued, and the lobbying association for the proprietary colleges filed a lawsuit challenging them. The for-profits prevailed in court, sending the Department back to the drawing board.

In 2014, the Department released new versions of the regulations, which were once again challenged in court. But so far, the Department has prevailed and the regulations are set to go into effect.

Rating colleges

Secretary Duncan’s other major regulatory initiative was a program to rate colleges by the Department, first announced by President Obama in August 2013. Once again, Duncan was strongly behind the President in the need for the Department to get into the business of rating colleges, even though it was pointed out that numerous magazines and other publications already did precisely this.

Once again, the higher education industry pushed back on the Secretary and the Department, most visibly over the President’s proposal that the ratings be used eventually to determine institutional eligibility for Title IV student aid funds. After two years of push and pull, countless meetings, regulatory notices, and commentary, last month Duncan backed off on the proposal to rate colleges. The effort was likely just too politically difficult for the Department, as higher education enjoyed strong support in Congress, even given all the criticisms colleges and universities have received for being too expensive and graduating too few students.

Instead of a ratings system, the Department released the College Scorecard, which is a repackaging of much of the data it had already made available to consumers, though this time in a more consumer-friendly format on the web. The big addition to the Scorecard is the addition of data on the average earnings of graduates of each college, though this measure has received much criticism as being severely limited and oversimplified (an assessment I share).

Little impact

In the end, Secretary Duncan’s legacy, particularly with respect to his efforts to regulate colleges, will likely be seen as a series of fits and starts, with little impact on the industry overall. Federal regulation of colleges and universities today is little different than in 2009 when Secretary Duncan first took office. While many in higher education may have breathed a sigh of relief when they heard of the Secretary’s resignation, it is likely that future leaders of the Department of Education will continue to try to hold the industry more accountable.

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