Duncan said in an interview he doesn't see a big need to go in that direction now, although he does think it's important to track factors such as graduation rates and tuition costs. He said he tracked his graduates while serving as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools and noticed that some universities were graduating them at rates of 75 percent or more, while others were graduating them at a small fraction of that.
"Colleges aren't too dissimilar to high schools. Some have done a great job building cultures around completion and obtainment and some haven't," Duncan said.
Historically, policy conversations have centered on getting students into college. Duncan said graduating is just as important.
"To be real clear, I think that's been the problem with federal policy in the past is 100 percent has been focused on the front end on inputs, that's clearly important, but that's the starting point. That gets you in the game. The goal isn't to get to the game, the goal is to get to the finish line," Duncan said.
Obama isn't the first president to encourage dialogue on making higher education more affordable and accountable. In addition to convening a commission to study higher education in America, Bush's administration issued grants to states to link transcript data with other records to better track the success of graduates from public institutions. The Obama administration has continued the program.
But Obama is taking the conversation to another level. That doesn't mean, however, he's abandoning the issue of accessibility. His administration has expanded the availability of Pell grants, supported a tax credit for tuition costs and is attempting to make it easier for some graduates to pay back loans.
Experts say some of the challenges in higher education result from too many students entering the doors without basic math and English skills. There's also the question of how to measure how effective colleges are and whether tuition increases are appropriate — especially for public institutions facing dramatic budget cuts.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the former president of Mayland Community College, said the issues raised by Obama are being addressed at the state and local level, where she said they should be handled, and that many schools are coming up with innovative ways to cut costs and to find ways to work with local industry. As an example, she recalled developing, while a community college president, a course in supervisory training after local industry sought it.
"All of these things the president talks about can be done at the local and state level, and are being done at the local and state level," Foxx said. "It isn't the role of government to guarantee somebody a good job after they graduate from college or community college."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., takes a different view.
"Right now, the information about the potential of various careers, the track records of colleges and the like is essentially strewn all over the countryside," said Wyden, who authored a bill on making college costs more transparent.
He added, "I think students and their parents are now saying in addition to accessibility, we want to wring the maximum value out of every dollar we're spending on education."
Follow Kimberly Hefling on Twitter at http://twitter.com/khefling
College Measures: http://collegemeasures.org/
American Institutes for Research: http://www.air.org/
Education Department: http://www.ed.gov/
American Association of State Colleges and Universities: http://www.aascu.org/
Rep. Virginia Foxx: http://foxx.house.gov/
Sen. Ron Wyden: http://wyden.senate.gov/
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