Can Better Data Protect Predatory College Students? A new organization is on a mission to discover

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This is a notoriously difficult question to answer. How the government approaches it can have major implications for students, families, schools and taxpayers. Despite the stakes, policymakers do not always have easy access to the data to determine which metrics to use – improved income, the ability to pay off debt incurred by a student to finance their education, or something less tangible – and how best to assess schools against these parameters.

A joint initiative between George Washington University, Columbia University and the National Student Legal Defense Network, which represents litigation student loan borrowers, hopes to solve, or at least mitigate, this conundrum.

The idea is that by bringing together regulatory lawyers and academic experts, the Postsecondary Equity and Economics Research The project can identify and delve into issues that might be useful to policy makers considering how best to hold colleges accountable and ensure that they meet the needs of the most vulnerable students.

The project includes leading higher education economists from Columbia and GW, as well as Vanderbilt University, Southern Methodist University and more. Student Defense staff, many of whom have held various legal positions in the Department of Education, will provide regulatory and policy insight.

The company comes at a turning point. The Biden administration is reviewing a series of regulations that govern schools’ ability to access federal financial aid, the experience of borrowers repaying their student loans, and more.

“We are entering a new era in higher education and what will hopefully soon be a post-COVID world with a new administration arriving,” said Aaron Ament, co-founder of Student Defense. “There will be a real need for policy and rule-making over the next two years to protect students from a host of diverse practices.”

Why having the right data is crucial for students, schools and taxpayers

Having the answers to the right questions and access to the relevant data will be crucial as regulators reflect on these rules. Often, government regulations that determine whether a school poses a risk to taxpayers or students are based on some sort of data-related metric, for example, whether students successfully repay their loans or whether their incomes have improved.

Institutions that violate government regulations can lose access to federal financial aid money, a major source of funding for most colleges. At the same time, schools that might not offer a return on investment for students could fall through the cracks if the government uses the wrong measure or one that is easily manipulated.

As members of the new initiative assess potential strategies to hold schools accountable, they will also pay close attention to how these policies might impact underserved students. On the one hand, students of color, veterans, low-income students, and working adults are often disproportionately affected by predatory school practices.

At the same time, colleges that form a large portion of first-generation low-income students, students of color, and working adults often do this work with fewer resources than colleges serving the wealthier students.

As a result, there are times when these schools can appear to be a risk to taxpayers and students based on government parameters, even when they provide students with valuable degrees.

Inspired by their own experience

The idea for the project was born from the founders’ own experience. The first time Ament remembers feeling the need for better coordination between regulatory lawyers and academics was in 2013 when he was working as special advocate in the Office of the Attorney General of the Ministry of Education.

At the time, the agency was looking for the best metrics to hold colleges accountable for a rule that requires career preparation programs – often offered at for-profit colleges – to adequately prepare students for paid employment.

Participants in the negotiated rule-making process, which allows agencies to develop regulatory proposals by engaging with stakeholders, had suggested the rate at which students who participated in these programs failed to repay their student loans, a measure that would have taken into account the outcomes of students who did not complete the program, instead of just those who graduated .

“We looked around and couldn’t find any published academic study on what would serve as a basis for creating a standard,” Ament said. “Finally, this measure was abandoned. ”

Stephanie Cellini, professor of public policy and economics at GW, who is leading the academic work of the project, said her time as a member of the House of Representatives committee on education and work was part of this which had motivated her to work with the defense of students. to launch the initiative.

“It was difficult to quickly find those academic studies that were directly related to the political issues we were wrestling with,” she said.

Cellini said that making the research of participating academics more directly relevant to policymakers is unlikely to require huge changes, instead, the project is likely to provide advice on how to mentor or refine the work academics were planning. already to do.

The types of issues the group plans to explore include topics that have preoccupied consumer advocates and think tank members for years. For example, if federal loan programs for parents and graduate students, both of which have been implicated in the increase in student debt and the challenges borrowers face in repaying it, could be improved to promote fairness and accountability.

Cellini said she is particularly interested in short-term programs and how tip income or self-employment can affect how these courses appear to be successful in improving income. Tips, which are typically not factored into traditional income measures, have been a source controversy to assess whether certain programs comply with the regulations.

Having good data on the role of tip income and self-employment in measuring the success of short-term programs is relevant to an issue that is of current concern to policymakers: Whether to allow students to use the Pell Grant – the money the government provides low-income students to attend college – to pay for these courses, which last less than 15 weeks and focus on a specific job or skill.

While these questions seem to be of interest only to those steeped in higher education and the politics of student loans, doing them right – or wrong – has the potential to impact students and the economy more broadly. , Cellini said.

“Higher education is a key to unlocking lifetime income gains, for many students, most students, but not all, especially in certain types of institutions and programs,” she said. .

“Students don’t always have all the information they need to make the best decision about their university choices,” she added. “The government has a role here in using the available data to ensure that students enroll in programs and institutions where they will see these gains and positive outcomes over the course of their lifetimes. ”

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