The college admissions process has been in the spotlight the past few months. We are questioning the inherent inequality, blatant cheating and whether or not we should trust the system at all. It fits into the larger theme students, parents of students and high school counselors feel every October to March — the intense pressure to get our students into college.
We have focused on getting students into college for so long, we are failing when it comes to getting them through college. The disparity and inequity we see in the admissions process does not stop with the acceptance letter. Institutions consistently fail to serve their students and set them up for success after enrollment.
We can and should be doing more. Our higher education system currently lacks the necessary guardrails that would ensure institutions are transparent about their student outcomes and accountable for delivering a reasonable return on a student’s investment. Our current laws send billions in taxpayer dollars to schools each year and protect higher education institutions that consistently underperform, leaving many of their students without degrees and in debt, and the rest of us lacking the tools we need to adequately inform young people of the risks.
In Virginia, 33% of our schools fail to graduate half of their first-time, full-time students within six years. The average four-year institution in our state has a graduation rate of just 56%. Currently, there is no threshold for graduation rates or any other student outcome that institutions must meet in order to gain accreditation and receive federal dollars. And some of these bad actors still continue to access money from federal aid programs year after year, in spite of the fact that they leave students worse off than when they started.
The lack of oversight is hurting the students in the long term. In Virginia, 72% of students are unable to begin paying down their student loans within three years, heightened by that fact the 42% of Virginia students earn salaries less than $25,000 a year six years after enrollment — which means they are making less than the average salary for those with only a high school diploma. While there are plenty of examples of schools across Virginia adequately preparing their students, there are too many taking advantage of the system.
Addressing this problem starts with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In order to earn accreditation, and thus receive taxpayer-funded federal dollars, institutions should have to meet a graduation threshold and prove that their students are able to pay off their loans.
It is imperative that our elected officials in Washington support these reforms during reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. We are fortunate in Virginia to have two key leaders who will be instrumental in this discussion — U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. We hope and expect these leaders will work across the aisle with their Republican colleagues to ensure the next steps in the reauthorization of this critical legislation force institutions to take some responsibility for the inequities that continue even after acceptance.