Blog (Kelchen on Education)

Will The K-12 Teacher Walkouts Affect Public Higher Education?

Perhaps the most interesting education policy development to this point in 2018 has been the walkouts by public school teachers in three states (Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) that have resulted in thousands of schools being closed as teachers descended on statehouses to demand better pay. These job actions (which are technically not strikes in some states due to labor laws, but operate in the same way) have been fairly successful for teachers to this point. West Virginia teachers received a five percent pay increase to end their walkout, while Oklahoma teachers received a pay increase of about $6,000. Kentucky teachers had rather limited success, while Arizona is on the verge of a teacher walkout later this week.

Given the success of these walkouts in politically conservative states, it is reasonable to expect K-12 public school teachers in other states to adopt the same tactics to increase their salaries or education funding in general. But what might these walkouts mean for public higher education? I present four possible scenarios below.

Scenario 1: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are ineffective. It’s probably safe to say that legislators in other states are strategizing about how to respond to a potential walkout in their state. If legislators do not want to increase K-12 education spending and can maintain a unified front, it’s possible that protests die out amid concerns that closing schools for days at a time hurts students. In that case, expect no implications for public higher education.

Scenario 2: Public college employees join the walkout movement. Seeing the victories that K-12 teachers have scored, faculty and staff walk out at public colleges in an effort to secure more higher education funding. While this could theoretically work, public support is likely to be much weaker for colleges and universities than K-12 teachers. Republicans in particular now view college professors far more skeptically than Democrats, while the two parties view K-12 public schools similarly. So this probably won’t work too well in conservative states.

Scenario 3: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are effective—and paid for by tax increases. Oklahoma paid for its increase in teacher salaries by increasing taxes in a number of different areas, although teachers wanted a capital gains tax exemption to be eliminated. This probably reduces states’ ability to raise additional revenue in the future—which could affect public colleges—but the immediate effects on public colleges should be pretty modest.

Scenario 4: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are effective—and paid for by reducing state spending in other areas. This is the nightmare scenario for public higher education. Higher education has traditionally been used as the balancing wheel in state budgets, with the sector being the first to experience budget cuts due to the presence of tuition-paying students. Therefore, in a zero-sum budget game without tax increases, more K-12 spending may come at the expense of higher education spending. West Virginia paid for its teacher pay increase this year in part by cutting Medicaid spending, but don’t expect most states to take that path in the longer term.

To sum up, the higher education community should be watching the K-12 walkouts very closely, as they could affect postsecondary students and faculty. And there may end up being some difficult battles in tax-averse states between K-12 and higher education advocates about how to divide a fixed amount of funds among themselves.

Why ACICS Will Likely Close Soon

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) has had a rather eventful last few years. The onetime accreditor of ITT Tech, Corinthian Colleges, and hundreds of other vocationally-focused colleges (primarily in the for-profit sector) was stripped of its ability to recognize colleges for federal financial aid purposes by the U.S. Department of Education in December 2016. This meant that 269 ACICS-accredited colleges serving 527,000 students had 18 months (until June 12, 2018) to find a new accreditor or their students would no longer have access to federal grants or student loans.

While ACICS-accredited colleges scrambled to find a new accreditor, ACICS sued the U.S. Department of Education in federal court on the grounds that their accreditation was unfairly terminated. In late March, a federal judge agreed with ACICS that there had been a procedural violation and sent the case back to the Department of Education to be reconsidered. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took a different view than former Secretary John King, announcing last week that ACICS would be allowed to become a recognized accreditor once again while ED continues to review the case.

Secretary DeVos’s decision gives ACICS at least a temporary reprieve by resetting the clock on how long ACICS-recognized colleges can receive federal financial aid—and this not surprisingly resulted in howls of protest from representatives of liberal-leaning organizations. But although ACICS will continue to exist in the short term, I expect that ACICS will no longer exist in five years. I explain the two reasons for my prediction below.

First, most ACICS-accredited colleges have already moved to another accreditor or are in the process of doing so. A Center for American Progress analysis shows that just 19 of the 269 colleges that were a part of ACICS are likely still open and have not made a clear move toward another accreditor. A number of colleges have already closed, while others are well on the road to accreditation. The 19 colleges that will likely stick with ACICS have about 25,000 students—making it financially difficult for ACICS to continue with such a small membership.

Second, I don’t think that ACICS’s reputation can ever recover from the experience of having accredited ITT Tech and Corinthian and then having its federal recognition stripped by the Obama administration. Although ACICS has a goal of being “a leader among accreditors,” any college that seeks ACICS accreditation is taking a sizable risk at this point. Blue-state attorneys general will likely continue to investigate ACICS given their longstanding opposition to the body, and future Democratic presidents may try to derecognize ACICS in an effort to undo the Trump administration’s actions. Large for-profits are also likely to avoid ACICS due to concerns from shareholders, and smaller for-profits may not be enough for the organization to make ends meet.

As far as I know, ACICS may be making real strides toward raising their standards and improving student outcomes. But any efforts they are undertaking are likely to be in vain as colleges try to find a safer harbor, resulting in their eventual collapse.

New Higher Education Policy Voice: Dominique Baker

Dominique Baker (@bakerdphd) is a second-year assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, where her research focuses on student financial aid and equity in higher education. A prolific scholar (her CV is available here), her work addresses policy-relevant topics in a way that should be the goal of every assistant professor. (Also, SMU does a great job highlighting the research of their faculty members, which is a nice model for other universities to follow.) Her work is informed by her time working in college access, including one year in the Virginia College Advising Corps and three years in the admissions office at the University of Virginia. Her experience working with students from lower-income families led her to do research on student financial aid and allows her to bring real-world experience to studying the topic.

Along with my Seton Hall colleague Richard Blissett—another great junior faculty member—Dominque published an article in The Journal of Higher Education examining potential factors associated with the development of student diversity movements on college campuses. The article got quite a bit of media coverage, including a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Dominique also published a great article in The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science with Will Doyle of Vanderbilt examining whether community college students who borrow have different academic trajectories than those who do not. They find a relatively small negative relationship between borrowing and long-term credit attainment, which adds to an interesting literature on the effects of debt.

Note: This is the final installment in the New Higher Education Policy Voices series for 2018. Please keep sending along recommendations for great people to keep an eye on, as I hope to do another series in the future. Here are the other individuals in this series:

Chris Marsicano, Vanderbilt University

Denisa Gándara, Southern Methodist University

Ellie Bruecker, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Oded Gurantz, Stanford University (University of Missouri-Columbia in fall 2018)

Amy Li, University of Northern Colorado

Benjamin Skinner, University of Virginia

Kelly Rosinger, Penn State University

The Potential Role of States in Setting Living Allowance Estimates

For most American college students, the non-tuition portions of the cost of attendance (room and board, books and supplies, and a miscellaneous expenses category) are larger than tuition and fees. Colleges can set these estimates as they deem fit, and previous research by me, Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University, and Braden Hosch of Stony Brook University shows a large amount of variation in living allowances among colleges in the same geographic area. This means that similar students can access different amounts of financial aid—and that colleges with the same tuition price can look much different in a range of accountability measures.

As the U.S. Department of Education currently does not provide guidance for colleges in setting these allowances (and Higher Education Act reauthorization looks increasingly unlikely in 2018), it is worth exploring whether states should step in and provide some assistance for their public colleges and universities. In the two blog posts below, I teamed up with David Tandberg of the State Higher Executive Officers Association and Sarah Pingel of Education Commission of the States to further examine the topic.

Detailed post (with data on variations within and across states)

Summary post

We would love to hear your thoughts on this issue, so send them along!

The 2018 Net Price Madness Bracket

Every year, I take the 68 teams in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament and fill out a bracket based on colleges with the lowest net price of attendance (defined as the total cost of attendance less all grant aid received). My 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013 brackets are preserved for posterity—and often aren’t terribly successful on the hardwood. My 2015 winner (Wichita State) won two games in the tournament, while prior winners New Orleans (2017), Fresno State (2016), Louisiana-Lafayette (2014), and North Carolina A&T (2013) emerged victorious for having the lowest net price but failed to win a single game. But at least West Virginia (a regional champion last year) won two games, so maybe there is some hope for this method.

I created a bracket using 2015-16 data (the most recent available through the U.S. Department of Education for the net price of attendance for all first-time, full-time students receiving grant aid I should note that these net price measures are far from perfect—the data are now three years old and colleges can manipulate these numbers through the living allowance portion of the cost of attendance. Nevertheless, they provide some insights regarding college affordability—and they may not be a bad way to pick that tossup 8/9 game that you’ll probably get wrong anyway.

The final four teams in the bracket are the following, with the full dataset available here:

East: Cal State-Fullerton ($8,170)

West: UNC-Chapel Hill ($10,077)

South: Wright State ($14,464)

Midwest: New Mexico State ($10,213)

Kudos to Cal State-Fullerton for having the lowest net price for all students ($8,170), with an additional shout-out to UNC-Chapel Hill for having the lowest net price among teams that are likely to make it to the final weekend of basketball ($10,077). (Also, kudos to the North Carolina system for having two universities in the last eight.)

Additionally, although I didn’t do a bracket for students in the lowest family income category (below $30,000) this year, the University of Michigan has the lowest net price in that category (at $2,660). Although Michigan doesn’t serve that many low-income students, a new program (designed in part by all-star Michigan economist Susan Dynarski) guarantees four years of free tuition for in-state students with family incomes below $65,000. That’s a good step for a wealthy public university to take.

New Higher Education Policy Voice: Kelly Rosinger

Kelly Rosinger (@kelly_rosinger) is a first-year assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State University. Before that, she was an Institute of Education Sciences postdoc at the University of Virginia, where she worked with Ben Castleman’s Nudge4 team applying behavioral interventions to improve the college choice process. An expert in experimental and quasi-experimental research methods, Kelly’s work focuses on the barriers students face on the way to and through college and the impact of policies and interventions aimed at helping students navigate college decisions. Her work influenced by her experience working in admissions at the University of Georgia.

Kelly has a new article in press at Education Finance and Policy that reports findings from a field experiment and quasi-experiment examining the impact of a recent federal policy effort to simplify financial aid award offers on borrowing. The study shows that the informational intervention reduced borrowing at colleges enrolling high shares of Pell recipients and underrepresented minority students, suggesting such interventions may be particularly salient to students who face greater informational barriers to college. She also co-authored an article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (which was just republished in a high-profile book) examining whether test-optional admissions practices at elite liberal arts colleges actually result in a more diverse student body. You can hear Kelly discuss the research on the Matt Townsend Show. They found that at those particular colleges, test-optional practices did not increase diversity.

New Research on Equity Provisions in State Performance Funding Policies

Previous versions of state performance-based funding (PBF) policies were frequently criticized for encouraging colleges to simply become more selective in order to get more state funding (see a good summary of the research here). This has potential concerns for equity, as lower-income, first-generation, adult, and racial/ethnic minority students often need additional supports to succeed in college compared to their more advantaged peers.

With the support of foundations and advocacy organizations, the most recent wave of state PBF policies has often included provisions that encourage colleges to enroll traditionally underrepresented students. For example, Indiana now gives $6,000 to a college if a low-income student completes a bachelor’s degree; while this is far less than the $23,000 that the college gets if a student completes their degree in four years, it still provides an incentive for colleges to change their recruitment and admissions practices. Today, at least sixteen states provide incentives for colleges to serve underrepresented students.

Given the growth of these equity provisions, it is not surprising that researchers are now turning their attention to these policies. Denisa Gandara of SMU and Amanda Rutherford of Indiana University published a great article in Research in Higher Education last fall looking at the effects of these provisions among four-year colleges. They found that the policies were at least somewhat effective in encouraging colleges to enroll more racial/ethnic minority and lower-income students.

As occasionally happens in the research world, multiple research teams were studying the same topic at the same time. I was also studying the same topic, and my article was accepted in The Journal of Higher Education a few days before their article was released. My article is now available online (the pre-publication version is here), and my findings are generally similar—PBF policies with equity provisions can at the very least help reduce incentives for colleges to enroll fewer at-risk students.

The biggest contribution of my work is how I define the comparison group in my analyses. The treatment group is easy to define (colleges that are subject to a PBF policy with equity provisions), but comparison groups often combine colleges that face PBF without equity provisions with colleges that are not subject to PBF. By dividing those two types of colleges into separate comparison groups, I can dig deeper into how the provisions of performance funding policies affect colleges. And I did find some differences in the results across the two comparison groups, highlighting the importance of more nuanced comparison groups.

Much more work still needs to be done to understand the implications of these new equity provisions. In particular, more details are needed about which components are in a state’s PBF system, and qualitative work is sorely needed to help researchers and policymakers understand how colleges respond to the nuances of different states’ policies. Given the growing group of scholars doing research in this area, I am confident that the state of PBF research will continue to improve over the next few years.

Why Accountability Efforts in Higher Education Often Fail

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

As the price tag of a college education continues to rise along with questions about academic quality, skepticism about the value of a four-year college degree has grown among the American public.

This has led both the federal government and many state governments to propose new accountability measures that seek to spur colleges to improve their performance.

This is one of the key goals of the PROSPER Act, a House bill to reauthorize the federal Higher Education Act, which is the most important law affecting American colleges and universities. For example, one provision in the act would end access to federal student loans for students who major in subjects with low loan repayment rates.

Accountability is also one of the key goals of efforts in many state legislatures to tie funding for colleges and universities to their performance.

As a researcher who studies higher education accountability – and also just wrote a book on the topic – I have examined why policies that have the best of intentions often fail to produce their desired results. Two examples in particular stand out.

Federal and state failures

The first is a federal policy that is designed to end colleges’ access to federal grants and loans if too many students default on their loans. Only 11 colleges have lost federal funding since 1999, even though nearly 600 colleges have fewer than 25 percent of their students paying down any principal on their loans five years after leaving college, according to my analysis of data available on the federal College Scorecard. This shows that although students may be avoiding defaulting on their loans, they will be struggling to repay their loans for years to come.

The second is state performance funding policies, which have encouraged colleges to make much-needed improvements to academic advising but have not resulted in meaningful increases in the number of graduates.

Based on my research, here are four of the main reasons why many accountability efforts fall short.

1. Competing initiatives

Colleges face many pressures that provide conflicting incentives, which in turn makes any individual accountability policy less effective. In addition to the federal government and state governments, colleges face strong pressures from other stakeholders. Accrediting agencies require colleges to meet certain standards. Faculty and student governments have their own visions for the future of their college. And private sector organizations, such as college rankings providers, have their own visions for what colleges should prioritize. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am the methodologist for Washington Monthly magazine’s college rankings, which ranks colleges on social mobility, research and service.)

As one example of these conflicting pressures, consider a public research university in a state with a performance funding policy that ties money to the number of students who graduate. One way to meet this goal is to admit more students, including some who have modest ACT or SAT scores but are otherwise well-prepared to succeed in college. This strategy would hurt the university in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which judge colleges in part based on ACT/SAT scores, selectivity and academic reputation.

Research shows that students considering selective colleges are influenced by rankings, so a university may choose to focus on improving their rankings instead of broadening access in an effort to get more state funds.

2. Policies can be gamed

Colleges can satisfy some performance metrics by gaming the system, instead of actually improving their performance. The theory behind many accountability policies is that colleges are not operating in an efficient manner and that they must be given incentives in order to improve their performance. But if colleges are already operating efficiently – or if they do not want to change their practices in response to an external mandate – the only option to meet the performance goal may be to try to game the system.

An example of this practice is with the federal government’s student loan default rate measure, which tracks the percentage of borrowers who default on their loans within three years of when they are supposed to start repaying their loans. Colleges that are concerned about their default rates can encourage students to enroll in temporary deferment or forbearance plans. These plans result in students owing more money in the long run, but also they push the risk of default outside the three-year period that the federal government tracks, which essentially lets colleges off the hook.

3. Unclear connections

It’s hard to tie individual faculty members to student outcomes. The idea of evaluating teachers based on their students’ outcomes is nothing new; 38 states require student test scores to be used in K-12 teacher evaluations, and most colleges include student evaluations as a criterion of the faculty review process. Tying an individual teacher to a student’s achievement test scores has been controversial in K-12 education, but it is far easier than identifying how much an individual faculty member contributes to a student’s likelihood of graduating from college or repaying their loans.

For example, a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree will take roughly 40 courses during their course of study. That student may have 30 different professors over four or five years. And some of them may no longer be employed when the student graduates. Colleges can try to encourage all faculty to teach better, but it’s difficult to identify and motivate the worst teachers because of the elapsed time between when a student takes a class and when he or she graduates or enters the workforce.

4. Politics as usual

Even when a college should be held accountable, politics often get in the way. Politicians may be skeptical of the value of higher education, but they will work to protect their local colleges, which are often one of the largest employers in their home states. This means that politicians often act to stop a college from losing money under an accountability system.

The ConversationTake for example Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who was sympathetic to the plight of a Kentucky community college with a student loan default rate that should have resulted in a loss of federal financial aid. He got a provision added to the recent federal budget agreement that allowed only that college to appeal the sanction.

New Higher Education Policy Voice: Benjamin Skinner

Benjamin Skinner (@btskinner) is a first-year research assistant professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. His research interests include quantitative methods, the geography of opportunity, and broad-access colleges. While working on his dissertation at Vanderbilt, he co-authored two great articles with his committee chair Will Doyle. The first, in Economics of Education Review, estimated the economic returns to college using geographic variation in the location of colleges to draw causal inference. The second, in The Journal of Higher Education (and an article that I use in my higher ed finance class), used a similar estimation strategy to look at the relationship between years of education and civic engagement.

Ben is perhaps best known for his incredible work with data—and for his willingness to share his code and materials with the general public. (More scholars should be doing this!) For example, the “code” page of his website includes helpful packages to help download and manage the massive College Scorecard dataset and how to work with LaTeX files. He has also put together some interesting data visualizations of college opportunity that look great and tell a compelling story. There is also quite a bit of material on his GitHub page, which is a great way to work with large data files (and something that I probably should learn at some point).

Comments on Accountability and the Higher Education Act

As the Senate works on its version of a Higher Education Act reauthorization bill, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has made accountability one of its key areas of discussion in recent hearings. Committee chairman Lamar Alexander asked the higher education community for comments regarding accountability, so I sent my comments along to the committee. They are reprinted below.

February 15, 2018

The Honorable Lamar Alexander

The Honorable Patty Murray

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee

Dear Senators:

My name is Robert Kelchen and I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.[i] I have been closely following the Higher Education Act reauthorization hearings in the Senate HELP Committee and am pleased to see the committee beginning to work on writing a comprehensive, bipartisan piece of legislation. Accountability is a crucial issue for both protecting students and taxpayers alike, and is such it is essential to design a system that encourages institutional improvement while discourages colleges from trying to game the system to remain eligible to receive federal Title IV financial aid dollars.

I have spent the last several years researching higher education accountability in all of its forms, including efforts by the federal government, state governments, accrediting agencies, the private sector, and colleges themselves.[ii] In this letter, I share four key points from my research on how to design accountability systems that have the highest likelihood of success and provide the best possible information for students, their families, and policymakers.


Point 1: Avoid all-or-nothing accountability systems. Three key federal accountability policies—cohort default rates (CDRs), the 90/10 rule, and gainful employment—grant institutions access to federal Title IV financial aid if they pass a certain threshold. Although the gainful employment metrics are too new to actually take away programs’ financial aid, it is clear from CDRs and the 90/10 rule that very few colleges are affected. In the most recent year of data, only ten small colleges faced the loss of either federal student loans or all Title IV aid for high CDRs and no colleges were subject to the loss of federal student aid for failing the 90/10 rule in two consecutive years.[iii]

Setting minimum performance floors sounds like an appealing idea, and the idea of ‘bright line’ standards has been proposed with respect to recognizing accreditors.[iv] But actually following through and pulling the plug on the lowest-performing colleges by denying them access to federal financial aid is a much more difficult task. As the majority staff’s white paper notes, just eleven colleges have lost access to Title IV funds due to high CDRs since 1999—even though approximately ten colleges per year should have lost aid if federal laws were strictly followed. Congress and the Department of Education have shown a lack of willingness to effectively close colleges (particularly public or private nonprofit institutions), as shown by the Senate Majority Leader’s recent efforts to exempt a Kentucky technical college from losing Title IV aid and the previous administration’s alteration of CDR calculations just prior to release in 2014 that protected an unknown number of colleges.[v]

A more effective way to hold a larger number of colleges accountable for their outcomes is to use a gradually increasing set of sanctions for lower-performing institutions. In theory, risk-sharing proposals for federal student loan repayment can provide that sort of incentive. However, the PROSPER Act’s loan repayment metric would create the same all-or-nothing incentive that would be subject to both institutional gaming and intense lobbying efforts. The Student Protection and Success Act creates a sliding scale to some extent (although retaining a minimum eligibility threshold), and academics’ risk-sharing proposals also are based on sliding scales.[vi] It is also important to note that risk-sharing proposals should include incentives for institutional improvement as well as sanctions, similar to what the ASPIRE Act would do.


Point 2: Both institution-level and program-level accountability policies are important. Policy conversations are rapidly moving toward holding individual programs within colleges accountable for their performance. Gainful employment regulations already seek to do that for a subset of programs, but the PROSPER Act would use program-level loan repayment rates for all institutions of higher education. This proposal makes intuitive sense, but program-level data collection efforts have some important limitations.

In general, programmatic outcomes data make the most sense when students enter a college or university with a particular field of study in mind. This is less of a concern for vocationally-oriented programs at the undergraduate level and for graduate and professional education in which students are generally admitted to study in particular programs. But not all students enter associate or baccalaureate degree programs with a declared major, and roughly one-third of first-time college students changed their declared major at least once within three years of starting college.[vii] This means that attributing student outcomes to a particular program becomes a concern. Additionally, if undeclared students are ignored for the purposes of program-level accountability metrics, colleges suddenly have an incentive to restrict when students can officially declare majors. Waiting until two years into a bachelor’s degree program to declare a major restricts the pool of students to those with a higher likelihood of success, meaning that dropouts are less likely to be counted.

Another potential option is to restrict program-level accountability only to students who graduate, as is the case with the current gainful employment regulations. But this obscures important data for students, since only 54% of students at four-year colleges and 32% of students at two-year colleges graduated from that same institution within eight years of initial enrollment.[viii] It is likely the case that reported program-level outcomes are far better for graduates than dropouts, thus providing an overly rosy picture of lower-performing programs.[ix]

Given the interest in program-level outcomes data alongside the difficulty in fully relying on program-level accountability measures in certain sectors of higher education, a more reasonable solution would be to use a combination of program-level and institution-level data for accountability purposes. It may be worthwhile to consider tougher performance measures for entire institutions than individual programs due to the difficulty in accurately measuring programmatic outcomes in non-vocational fields and due to concerns about small cell sizes for certain programs of study.


Point 3: Defining the loan repayment rate is perhaps the most important accountability-related issue in HEA reauthorization. Very few academics consider CDRs to be a tremendously valuable measure of institutional performance due to their ability to be manipulated by colleges, the presence of income-driven repayment programs, and their relatively short time horizon. The student loan repayment rate that was included in the 2015 release of the College Scorecard represented a more comprehensive look at how former students are managing their loans, and painted a completely different pictures than CDRs (especially after an unfortunate coding error was finally fixed in early 2017).[x]

Both the definition of student loan repayment rates in the College Scorecard and the types of loans included are decisions that have substantial accountability implications. The Scorecard definition (repaying at least $1 in principal at 1, 3, 5, and 7 years after entering repayment) includes federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, omitting Parent and Grad PLUS loans. Approximately $21 billion of the $94 billion in federal loans during the 2016-17 academic year was in the form of PLUS loans, yet this is entirely missing from the Scorecard repayment rate (and CDRs, as well).[xi] It may be worth considering a separate loan repayment rate metric for Parent PLUS loans, but Grad PLUS loans should be included with other student loans for accountability purposes.

There are two other potential definitions of loan repayment rates that are worth considering. The first is the percentage of dollars that are repaid during a certain period of time. This is similar to the initial definition of repayment rates that was used in the 2010 negotiations regarding gainful employment.[xii] This is a more taxpayer-focused metric, as it captures overall risk of nonrepayment instead of the percentage of borrowers who are struggling to pay down principal. The second definition is the percentage of students who are on track to repay their loans within a fixed window of time. The challenge with this definition is that students can choose from a menu of loan repayment plans, with extended payment plans being particularly common among students with larger amounts of debt.

A further complicating factor is the growth of income-driven repayment plans, which now represent about 40% of all outstanding federal student loan dollars.[xiii] These plans often result in outstanding balances rising in early years of repayment (when incomes are low) before principal is paid down later. An analysis of recent bachelor’s degree recipients found that only about 25% of students in income-driven plans paid off any principal within five years of entering repayment, while about 75% of students not in income-driven repayment had repaid principal within one year of entering repayment.[xiv] How to address students in income-driven repayment plans is a key concern regarding student loan repayment rates, as the federal government could simultaneously encourage students to enroll in income-driven plans while penalizing colleges where students take up such plans.


Point 4: Free the higher education data! Students and their families are currently being asked to make one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives based on relatively little objective information. The College Scorecard was a helpful step forward, as was including part-time and Pell recipient graduation rates in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System in 2017. A student unit record data system would certainly be helpful in making better data available in the college choice process, but there are things that the Department of Education can do (with the support of Congress) without overturning the ban. A few of the most important data points are the following:

  • Program-level outcomes for all Title IV institutions. Regardless of how the gainful employment negotiated rulemaking panel turns out, HEA reauthorization should encourage data to be released for all programs of study (with the caveats as noted earlier in this letter). Some programmatic accreditors are starting to require institutions to release this sort of information, but ED can do so fairly easily for all students receiving federal financial aid. It would be nice to include all students attending Title IV-participating institutions, but program-level data for federal aid recipients would be a good start.
  • Separate data for undergraduate and graduate students. Although graduate and professional students represent just 17% of all federal student loan borrowers, they make up 38% of all federal student loan dollars.[xv] Yet loan repayment and debt data are not presented separately for graduate students—and current data do not even include Grad PLUS loans.
  • Include outcomes for Parent PLUS loans. Although only five percent of students had a Parent PLUS loan in the 2011-12 academic year, this is still an important financing source for families; borrowing rates are higher (13%) at HBCUs and average loan amounts among borrowers are over $12,000.[xvi] Yet the only information available on PLUS loan outcomes is a set of sector-level default rates that ED released following a negotiated rulemaking panel in 2014.[xvii] It is more difficult to envision a high-stakes accountability policy based on parent outcomes instead of student outcomes, but making institution-level data public would be a valuable service to families.
  • Provide data on incomedriven repayment plan usage by institution. Because repayment rates are affected by income-driven repayment plans, it would be helpful to provide information on the percentage of borrowers from each institution who are enrolled in income-driven repayment plans, ideally at the undergraduate and graduate level. A lower repayment rate at a college that graduates a large percentage of students into public service may be more acceptable due to income-driven repayment plans, while a similar repayment rate at a college where students are enrolled in more lucrative majors would be a greater cause for concern.[xviii]

I would like to thank the HELP Committee for holding a series of hearings on Higher Education Act reauthorization and for actively engaging with the research community throughout the process. As the committee is drafting the bill over the next few months, so I encourage Senators and staff members to continue reaching out to researchers while considering potential policy proposals and legislative text. I am more than happy to talk with any committee members during this process and I wish you all the best of luck in working on a much-needed overhaul of the Higher Education Act.


[i] All views and opinions expressed in this letter are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect my employer.

[ii] See my new book Higher Education Accountability, which is now available through Johns Hopkins University Press.

[iii] Author’s calculations using Federal Student Aid data on cohort default rates (FY14 cohort) and proprietary school revenue percentages (2015-16). Additionally, I appreciate the majority staff referencing one of my blog posts on the topic—that made my day!

[iv] Lederman, D. (2017, June 21). Where winds are blowing on accreditation. Inside Higher Ed.

[v] Douglas-Gabriel, D. (2018, February 8). McConnell attempts to protect two Kentucky colleges in budget deal. The Washington Post. Stratford, M. (2014, September 24). Reprieve on default rates. Inside Higher Ed.

[vi] Kelchen, R. (2015). Proposing a federal risk-sharing policy. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation. Webber, D. A. (2017). Risk-sharing and student loan policy: Consequences for students and institutions. Economics of Education Review, 57, 1-9.

[vii] Leu, K. (2017). Beginning college students who change their majors within 3 years of enrollment. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics Report NCES 2018-434.

[viii] Ginder, S. A., Kelly-Reid, J. E., & Mann, F. B. (2017). Graduation rates for selected cohorts, 2008-13; outcome measures for cohort year 2008; student financial aid, academic year 2015-16; and admissions in postsecondary institutions, fall 2016. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics Report NCES 2017-150rev.

[ix] There is an argument that students want outcomes of graduates only instead of combining graduates and dropouts, given common complaints about College Scorecard data and the common trend of students overstating their likelihood of graduation. But for an accountability system tied to federal financial aid instead of consumer information, the proper sample may differ.

[x] Kelchen, R., & Li, A. Y. (2017). Institutional accountability: A comparison of the predictors of student loan repayment and default rates. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 671, 202-223.

[xi] Baum, S., Ma, J., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2017). Trends in student aid. New York, NY: The College Board.

[xii] Belfield, C. R. (2013). Student loans and repayment rates: The role of for-profit colleges. Research in Higher Education, 54(1), 1-29.

[xiii] Author’s analysis using Federal Student Aid data.

[xiv] Conzelman, J. G., Smith, N. D., & Lacy, T. A. (2016, July 11). The tension between student loan accountability and income-driven repayment plans. Brown Center Chalkboard.

[xv] Baum, S., & Steele, P. (2018). Graduate and professional school debt: How much students borrow. West Chester, PA: AccessLex Institute.

[xvi] Goldrick-Rab, S., Kelchen, R., & Houle, J. (2014). The color of student debt: Implications of federal loan program reforms for black students and historically black colleges and universities. Madison, WI: Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

[xvii] Stratford, M. (2014, April 3). Default data on Parent PLUS loans. Inside Higher Ed.

[xviii] It would be helpful to have data on Public Service Loan Forgiveness interest by institution, but these data would be incomplete because students do not have to signal any intent to use the program until they officially apply after making 120 qualifying payments.