Lawmakers push college accountability

A bill may be introduced this session outlining criteria tied to grant funding.

Haley Hansen

As the price of higher education continues rising, lawmakers want to make sure students are getting the most for their money.

Minnesota officials are now following the federal government’s lead to create accountability measures that ensure colleges and universities are providing students a well-rounded education without breaking the bank.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who chairs the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, hopes to introduce legislation this session that would tie state grant funding to performance measures.

The White House announced its plans in summer 2013 to create a college ratings system that would tie federal grants to whether colleges meet set requirements.

Also in 2013, the state Legislature directed the Minnesota Office of Higher Education to identify criteria that could be used to determine whether a school should receive financial aid from the state.

State grants aid students from low- and moderate-income families in paying for educational costs at eligible Minnesota colleges and universities.

About a year after OHE began its research, Bonoff charged a work group that comprised higher education officials and school leaders to look into ways the state could make universities more accountable.

Based on the findings, OHE released a report last month that provides the state with nine metrics to measure schools against, including their net price, students’ cumulative debt and whether students complete their education.

Bonoff said she’s currently waiting for OHE to provide language recommendations for her bill before she introduces it.

With her bill, Bonoff said she wants to ensure that low-performing schools are held responsible.

“We can’t shut them down, and that’s not our role,” she said. “But we can send a signal by saying [their] students can’t access our state aid dollars.”

State lawmakers’ biggest concerns regarding schools are high amount of student debt along with ensuring students are prepared when they enter the workforce upon graduation, OHE financial aid research manager Meredith Fergus said.

However, she said creating a policy that ties schools’ standards to financial aid access could come at the cost of students.

“Taking away financial aid does hurt the institution in the fact that students won’t enroll in that institution if they can’t get financial aid,” Fergus said. “But it primarily hurts the student, so we’re not sure it’s the right thing to do.”

Alternatively, she said tying performance measures to schools’ licenses and registration would be a better option.

University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs Associate Dean Laura Bloomberg said it’s reasonable for the state to look into accountability measures but cautioned it’s important to not repeat previous mistakes.

She said the recent push mirrors accountability measures geared toward K-12 education like No Child Left Behind — a federal law tying K-12 teacher evaluations to their students’ standardized test scores — which looked at success in education based on too slim of standards.

“We just have to be sure we’re not measuring the wrong things or, most importantly, measuring too narrowly,” she said. “Or we will regress to a very narrow view of what higher education ought to be.”