What's a college grad worth? Washington starts to ask.

The Department of Education's new rules aimed at making sure graduates of career colleges find 'gainful employment' could be a starting point for Congress to demand accountability of all higher education.

Any teacher in higher education who cares about whether students are actually learning may want to take notice of something the Obama administration just did.

New rules issued Thursday by the Department of Education will hold accountable a rising sector of higher education – career colleges – on whether graduates are prepared enough for jobs in their fields.

In essence, these types of mainly for-profit schools will be shut down if graduates don’t have “gainful employment” to pay back their student loans.

While the new regulations are aimed mainly at preventing fraud, they also set a critical precedent for extending the federal hand into higher ed. All colleges and universities might someday be held responsible for the learning outcomes of students. Report cards could be issued on faculty to measure whether their teaching produced results for graduates in the workplace.

By 2013, Congress must renew the Higher Education Act. That law currently doles out billions each year, including loan money for students. The new rules for career colleges set the stage for lawmakers to consider whether all other schools receiving funds should be accountable to taxpayers – as well as education consumers – for proof of academic effectiveness.

Up to now, many schools have relied mostly on their reputations or their resources (faculty, buildings, sports, etc.) as a measure of their worth, not the earning power of graduates or their ability to pay back loans. But an “accountability movement” has been gaining, even inside higher ed.

Many educators, for example, want to come up with different measuring sticks than the college rankings done by US News & World Report. Others foresee lawmakers demanding a similar accounting for higher education as the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act has done for K-12. Still others want to accommodate parents and applicants who balk at rising tuitions and demand to know the return on their investment.

Such sentiments are understandable. A recent study found that nearly half of all college students do not show any progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication during their first two years. After four years, more than a third of students do not show significant improvement in these higher-order cognitive skills.

And a study just issued by the Education Trust finds that the average low-income family pays 72 percent of its annual income for a four-year college education. For a middle-class family, the figure is 27 percent.

Here is what Education Secretary Arne Duncan had to say Thursday about the career-college sector: “The quality here has been very uneven. There have been some absolute superstars. And there have been some players whose intentions, quite frankly, we doubt.”

And he added: “These new regulations will help ensure that students at these schools are getting what they pay for: solid preparation for a good job.”

Fixing higher education isn’t easy, as any college president who has locked horns with faculty will attest. But Washington does have leverage over regional accreditation bodies that evaluate schools.

These new regulations, which are aimed only at career schools, or about 10 percent of full-time college enrollment, could be a shot across the bow for all colleges to prove their worth, especially in this era of scarce federal and state dollars.

But measuring the success of an education in simply economic terms, such as the ability to pay back a student loan, won’t always be the best measure. Before Washington takes on higher education more fully, it will need to do its homework.

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