News: CJ Exclusives

College Transparency An Issue In N.C., Other States

S.B. 536, on Monday's Senate calendar, is part of trend in providing more information about benefits and costs of college degrees

A bill that would increase access to information about the costs, benefits, and consequences of college degrees available in North Carolina passed the state House on Wednesday by a vote of 101-16 and has been placed on Monday’s Senate calendar.

Senate Bill 536, “Students Know Before You Go and Central Residency,” instructs the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority to build a website providing college applicants information about the potential costs and benefits of receiving a degree from any community college, public university, or private institution in the state.

The data to be outlined for each institution will include graduation and transfer rates, percentage of students receiving financial aid, average and median amount of loan debt upon graduation, and percentage of graduates employed within six-months of graduation — to name a few.

The site also will include data about the state’s employment needs and salary ranges. All information will be obtained from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition to college transparency rules, the bill also includes provisions that would, starting in the coming academic year, streamline the state’s process for confirming a student’s in-state public tuition and scholarship qualifications. Under current law, individual University of North Carolina institutions are responsible for determining if an applicant qualifies as a state resident, and is eligible for special financial assistance.

The version of S.B. 536 the Senate is set to consider Monday differs from the one that passed that body earlier this year, so the Senate has been asked to concur with the current version. If it does, the bill will go to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature. If not, the differing versions will have to be reconciled by a conference committee and pass both legislative bodies before the end of the short session, which is expected to adjourn before the end of June.

If S.B. 536 becomes law, the transparency measure would take effect in April 2017, and would see North Carolina join a handful of other states that over the last few years successfully have passed legislation intended to provide college applicants more information of costs, risks, and potential returns on investment.

Those states include California, Connecticut, Maryland, and Michigan. While Maryland and Michigan lawmakers focused their regulations on for-profit schools only, California and Connecticut have passed transparency laws that — like S.B. 536 — apply to public and private institutions.

Similarly, Minnesota’s state legislature in 2015 introduced legislation that would require private, for-profit institutions to provide potential students with graduation and job placement rates, as well as information about credit transferability. That bill is in a state Senate committee.

While S.B. 536 passed the House without much debate, Rep. William Richardson, D-Cumberland, raised objections based on what he said was a precedent for legislative interference in a process that should be handled by the the state’s public and private university systems.

“I fear we’re going down a slippery slope here,” Richardson said. “We’ve formed the board of [N.C.] Community Colleges. We’ve formed the [University of North Carolina] Board of Governors. We’ve formed these institutions so that the legislature would not act as a super university, or a super community college.”

Richardson added that he thought the legislature should stay out of it and “let the people who know what they’re doing do it.”

Recent conflict

Richardson’s statement reflects a record of somewhat tense relations between the General Assembly and the UNC Board of Governors due to a complicated power dynamic that placed both entities at odds over various issues last year.

The controversy began in October 2015, when former BOG chair John Fennebresque attempted to sidestep a law passed by the General Assembly requiring more transparency during UNC’s presidential search process. Board members called for Fennebresque’s resignation, and he stepped down shortly thereafter.

More conflict ensued later in the year when the board — under the leadership of current chairman Lou Bissette — held a closed session vote to give 12 campus chancellors pay hikes. Board members told lawmakers that the votes were sensitive personnel issues, but that claim was challenged by Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, who issued a legal request to review minutes, agendas, and audio recordings from the Oct. 30 meeting. Berger and Moore also called Bissette before the Governmental Operations Commission to provide further explanation of the board’s actions.

The board since has made efforts to increase transparency, and UNC President Margaret Spellings has stated publicly that improving relations with the legislature is one of her top priorities.

Interested in reading about other higher education issues? Learn about the debate over a plan to increase UNC’s graduation rates and improve educational achievement via the state’s community college system, here.