Why is it So Difficult to Sanction Colleges for Poor Performance?

The U.S. Department of Education has the ability to sanction colleges for poor performance in several ways. A few weeks ago, I wrote about ED’s most recent release of financial responsibility scores, which require colleges deemed financially unstable to post a bond with the federal government before receiving financial aid dollars. ED can also strip a college’s federal financial aid eligibility if too high of a percentage of students default on their federal loans, if data are not provided on key measures such as graduation rates, or if laws such as Title IX (prohibiting discrimination based on sex) are not followed.

The Department of Education can also sanction colleges by placing them on Heightened Cash Monitoring (HCM), requiring additional documentation and a hold on funds before student financial aid dollars are released. Corinthian Colleges, which partially collapsed last summer, blames suddenly imposed HCM requirements for its collapse as they were left short on cash. Notably, ED has the authority to determine which colleges should face HCM without relying upon a fixed and transparent formula.

In spite of the power of the HCM designation, ED has previously refused to release a list of which colleges are subject to HCM. The outstanding Michael Stratford at Inside Higher Ed tried to get the list for nearly a year through a Freedom of Information Act request (which was mainly denied due to concerns about hurting colleges’ market positions), finally making this dispute public in an article last week. This sunlight proved to be a powerful disinfectant, as ED relinquished late Friday and will publish a list of the names this week.

The concerns about releasing HCM scores is but one of many difficulties the Department of Education has had in sanctioning colleges for poor performance across different dimensions. Last fall, the cohort default rate measures were tweaked at the last minute, which had the effect of allowing more colleges to pass and retain access to federal aid. Financial responsibility scores have been challenged over concerns that ED’s calculations are incorrect. Gainful employment metrics are still tied up in court, and tying any federal aid dollars to college ratings appears to have no chance of passing Congress at this point. Notably, these sanctions are rarely due to direct concerns about academics, as academic matters are left to accreditors.

Why is it so difficult to sanction poorly-performing colleges, and why is the Department of Education so hesitant to release performance data? I suggest three reasons below, and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

(1) The first reason is the classic political science axiom of concentrated benefits (to colleges) and diffuse costs (to students and the general public). Since there is a college in every Congressional district (Andrew Kelly at AEI shows the median district had 11 colleges in 2011-12), colleges and their professional associations can put forth a fight whenever they feel threatened.

(2) Some of these accountability measures are either all-or-nothing in nature (such as default rates) or incredibly costly for financially struggling colleges (HCM or posting a letter of credit for a low financial responsibility score). More nuanced systems with a sliding scale might make some sanctions possible, and this is a possible reform under Higher Education Act reauthorization.

(3) The complex relationship between accrediting bodies and the Department of Education leaves ED unable to directly sanction colleges for poor academic performance. A 2014 GAO report suggested accrediting bodies also focus more on finances than academics and called for a greater federal role in accreditation, something that will not sit well with colleges.

I look forward to seeing the list of colleges facing Heightened Cash Monitoring be released later this week (please, not Friday afternoon!) and will share my thoughts on the list in a future piece.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

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