Op-ed: Higher standards needed for higher education

As graduation season winds down, students across the country are thinking about their next step. For college graduates entering the work force, the transition often leads to one burdening question: what’s next? While we focus on transitioning students to college, I challenge our federal legislators that we are not doing enough to ensure that students are leaving post-secondary institutions better-off than they were with a high school diploma in-hand.

For every fine institution across South Carolina, there is another that is failing the students they claim to be preparing for careers. Fifty-one percent of our post-secondary schools fail to graduate half or more of their first-time, full-time students within six years. Of the students that choose to continue on to higher education, 45% leave with a salary less than $25,000, which means they are making less than the average salary for those with only a high school degree. These are not acceptable results.

Confusingly, higher education institutions that repeatedly fail to deliver results for their students can still access federal funds. Our taxpayer dollars — in the amount of $130 billion annually — are funding schools that consistently show they are leaving students worse off than they were before. We are operating under outdated federal legislation that provides no thresholds or standards for schools to meet to remain accredited. The lack of transparency and accountability has led us to a place where taxpayers are sending $3 billion a year to institutions with less than a 10% graduation rate.

We are past the point where we can assume higher education intuitions are doing their job — it is time for them to be held accountable.

The first step is to implement levels of transparency in post-secondary education so we can see hard data on whether or not certain institutions are worth the money. Clear six-year graduations rates, complete post-degree earnings, and detailed student debt burdens are needed for students to determine if they are making the right choice by proceeding to a college. I applaud U.S. Sen. Tim Scott for understanding the disconnect in available information and co-sponsoring a bill that will take this problem head-on. The College Transparency Act of 2019 is the first step to higher education reform.

From there, we have to consider what specific changes can be made as we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year. As a chairman of the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce, I worry that some institutions are taking advantage of students. Failing to deliver a return on investment, more often than not, harms students with the most to lose. In order to receive accreditation, and thus access the pool of $130 billion in federal aid taxpayers fund annually, institutions must prove they are meeting the standards expected. We need benchmarks and thresholds for our schools to meet. Institutions should only be accredited if they consistently hit certain graduation rates and produce respectable debt-to-income results for their graduates.

With Senator Scott’s proven leadership in this area, I hope he can work across the aisle to pass bipartisan, logical accountability standards to help improve our higher education system, setting students up for success and protecting taxpayer money for schools doing their job.