In ‘education deserts,’ trading accountability for transparency could spell trouble

The Trump administration’s recent moves to relax regulations on for-profit colleges and rely on transparency instead could be especially problematic in areas with few options for higher education, Matthew Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s education policy program, writes in The New York Times.

Eliminating accountability measures, encouraging data-driven enrollment decisions

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos this month announced plans to end Obama-era “gainful employment” rules designed to withhold federal funding from certain for-profit and career colleges whose graduates lack job prospects and the earnings needed to repay their student loans.

Instead, the Trump administration plans to facilitate “market-based accountability” by expanding the data available through the College Scorecard website, which allows consumers to compare colleges’ graduation rates, their average cost, and the median salaries of former students who received federal financial aid.

Chingos: Higher education won’t behave like traditional markets

While the Department of Education says the increased transparency will help steer students toward programs with the best outcomes, Chingos points out that the higher education market is unique in that it “is strongly local,” with most students attending a college within 15 miles of their home.

Given that most students won’t—or can’t—relocate for school, “merely providing more information, while helpful, is not enough” to ensure students won’t fall prey to schools with poor track records, Chingos says.

Areas with sparse higher ed options especially at-risk

In questioning the viability of market-based accountability, Chingos notes that millions of Americans live in areas where there’s a single provider of higher education, and 11 million Americans live in “education deserts”—where the closest public school accepting more than 30 percent of applicants is more than an hour’s drive away.

While studying Virginia, for instance, Chingos found that nearly two-thirds of students lived in such education or “choice” deserts, where comparative earnings information is unlikely to be helpful. Relaxing oversight “can be a problem in any market in which consumers can’t choose from a diverse array of providers,” he cautions.

Data alone may not sway education decisions

While acknowledging the potential benefits of having “more and better information when deciding where to enroll in college, what to study, and how much to borrow,” Chingos questions how many students will use it. His research in Virginia revealed that high school students “had relatively little interest” in accessing the sort of information published on the College Scorecard site, and past studies have similarly found that information alone rarely sways students’ educational decisions.

Although “the current gainful employment rules are by no means perfect,” trading them for additional earnings information “will do little to lesson social stratification in higher education, and may make it worse,” Chingos says.

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