Tough on Colleges, Arne Duncan Bequeaths Record of Advocacy for Students

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Arne Duncan announced on Friday that he would step down after seven years as secretary of education in President Obama’s cabinet.
October 04, 2015

For someone who came into office passionate about K-12 issues, Arne Duncan will leave a big imprint on higher education. After nearly seven years as U.S. secretary of education, Mr. Duncan announced last week that he would step down in December.

During Mr. Duncan’s tenure, the department eliminated banks from the student-loan system, simplified the process of applying for financial aid, and expanded options for income-based repayment of student loans. It toughened regulations to curb recruiting abuses by for-profit colleges and aligned with the White House to push for greater consumer information in all sectors of higher education.

The way that students can obtain federal aid is now clearer, the terms for repaying student loans are more flexible, and information about colleges’ costs, their financial challenges, and their students’ outcomes is easier to find.

It's no surprise, then, that assessments of the secretary tend to include the terms "accountability" and "transparency."

Many observers credit Mr. Duncan, 50, with changing the culture of the department. "He presided over a really crucial shift," said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, an advocacy group, "from a focus on schools and lenders to a focus on students and borrowers."

By all accounts, Mr. Duncan has deferred to colleagues on the details of most higher-education policy making. But he was more than ready to personally upbraid colleges over rising prices and low graduation rates, their handling of cases of sexual assault, their lax academic standards for athletes in big-time programs, and their resistance to greater oversight — often to the discomfort of higher-education leaders accustomed to Democratic secretaries of education who promised more money and fewer questions.

In a letter to colleagues at the department on Friday, Mr. Duncan — who took office at the start of President Obama's first term, after serving as chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools — said he was stepping down because being apart from his family had become "too much of a strain." His wife and school-age children moved back to Chicago several months ago.

John B. King Jr., a former commissioner of education for the State of New York who joined the department this year, will serve as acting secretary of education.

At a news conference on Friday, Mr. Duncan choked up as he recalled learning the power of education from his mother, who started an after-school program on the South Side of Chicago.

President Obama said Mr. Duncan, his friend and favorite partner in pick-up basketball, had "helped millions more families afford college." He would leave a record, the president said, that "I truly believe no other education secretary can match."

‘Students First’

In higher-education circles, many echoed that praise, though some faulted his department for overreaching, notably in its insistent support for the ill-fated college-rating system. Some also complained of inadequate oversight of companies that service student loans and too little help for borrowers saddled with debt.

Still, Ms. Asher said, Mr. Duncan "took on some really important fights" to hold both for-profit and nonprofit institutions to publicly available standards.

"Arne put students first, no question," said John S. Wilson Jr., who led the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and is now president of Morehouse College.

But nearly everyone was critical of Mr. Duncan for supporting the rating system, even as it became clear over the course of nearly two years that the project would be impossible to pull off. In place of the proposed system, which the department announced in June that it was scrapping, the White House and the department unveiled the College Scorecard, designed to let students and parents judge colleges on the basis of data and other factors most important to them.

"The scorecard data are really big and will hopefully push the conversation around transparency and maybe accountability," said Amy Laitinen, a former department official who is now director for higher education at New America.

In connection with the scorecard, the department has produced a website with rich stores of federal data on colleges and students.

Beyond those efforts, Mr. Duncan deserves credit for "getting data, getting access to data, and getting people to know about data," said Robert Shireman, a former deputy under secretary of education who is now a senior fellow in higher-education policy at the Century Foundation.

That focus was crucial to ensure that students would see graduation rates for the colleges to which they sent federal financial-aid forms, he said. Staff members at the department hesitated to make the change, for fear that colleges would object, Mr. Shireman noted. But, he recalled, the secretary insisted, saying, "If colleges don’t want people to know about grad rates, I’ll take the heat."

In 2012, when the department introduced its financial-aid "Shopping Sheet," a document meant to ensure that colleges were being clear with students about the cost of attendance, Mr. Duncan wrote to all college presidents, urging them to adopt it.

Checks on For-Profit Colleges

Early in Mr. Duncan’s tenure, the department set out to remedy what it saw as abusive practices at for-profit colleges. It put out regulations to curb bonus payments and other mainstays of recruitment at the fast-growing institutions. And it pushed for a "gainful employment" rule that would cut off federal student aid to career-focused programs that left graduates with high debt burdens and low earning potential. The years-long fight over that rule drew intense lobbying.

"The ‘buyer beware’ environment for career education was causing and continues to raise real problems," said Ms. Asher, of the Institute for College Access and Success, known as Ticas. Mr. Duncan "took steps both to recognize the problem and to take real, hard-fought steps toward addressing it."

The department’s first version of a gainful-employment rule was successfully challenged in court by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, or Apscu. The second version provided more justification for its standards for cutting off programs, but the group filed suit against that one, too. A federal court recently upheld the rule, but Apscu is appealing that decision.

Along the way, Mr. Duncan hasn’t minced words about for-profit colleges. "Some of these schools have brought the ethics of payday lending into higher education," he told reporters in June. "They prey on the most vulnerable students and leave them with debt that they too often can’t repay."

The secretary has also criticized members of Congress for opposing the department’s attempts to regulate career programs, and has found fault with accrediting agencies for what he saw as their lax oversight.

While some have hailed his goal of protecting students, for-profit colleges have seen him as a stubborn adversary driven by ideological opposition. "He will be remembered by our sector for confrontation rather than constructive collaboration," said Steve Gunderson, president of Apscu.

Mr. Duncan and other top officials in the department have continued to rebuff invitations to speak at the association’s events or to talk policy with it, Mr. Gunderson said, even after its own acknowledgments that the sector "grew too fast" and "had bad outcomes."

The new rules on recruitment and gainful employment have had a far-reaching effect, said Eduardo Ochoa, who served as assistant secretary for postsecondary education from 2010 to 2012. They put serious pressure on proprietary institutions, he said, and raised awareness of potential abuses among members of Congress and state attorneys general.

In his work on other sectors of higher education, too, Mr. Duncan resisted objections, said Mr. Ochoa, who is now president of California State University-Monterey Bay. "I have seen him be fearless about doing the right thing even when it was politically perilous."

Regulatory Burden

The Education Department’s increased focus on accountability through regulation has brought it a fair amount of criticism from public and private nonprofit colleges as well. They often complain about unintended consequences. Accreditors, too, have said their recognition process has become a burdensome checklist.

Even as the Obama administration has sought to bolster community colleges — notably with the American Graduation Initiative, to increase federal support for those institutions, and more recent calls for free community college — leaders in the sector say it is struggling under increased regulatory pressure.

"I can’t help but be complimentary of both Secretary Duncan and President Obama," said Walter G. Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. "They have helped elevate America’s consciousness about community colleges." (Mr. Duncan’s first under secretary of education was a former community-college chancellor, Martha J. Kanter, the first two-year-college leader to hold the Education Department’s No. 2 job.)

But the gainful-employment rule has put a burden on public two-year colleges, said David S. Baime, the association’s chief lobbyist. "The regulations will have essentially no impact on our colleges," he said, because most programs are inexpensive and won’t violate the rule’s debt tests. "But the reporting requirements are a sore spot."

Administering the federal direct-lending program, too, has created extra costs for community colleges at a time of state budget cuts.

Celebrity Status

Even as observers applauded the department’s record under Mr. Duncan, they pointed out deficiencies.

The fight for the gainful-employment rule distracted from "real problems outside the for-profit sector," said Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, in an email to The Chronicle. And the push for free community college seemed like a pivot away from the goals of accountability and innovation, he said.

Still, Mr. Kelly praised Mr. Duncan’s commitments "to shift the emphasis from access to student success, to demand more of colleges, to provide students and families with better information on aid and options." Like the secretary who preceded him, Margaret Spellings, he "has helped to push federal higher-education policy toward a more transparent, more accountable status quo," Mr. Kelly said.

The Obama administration’s goal of raising higher-education attainment by 2020 was important, said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, but it "lost a little attention along the way."

Mr. Warren faulted Mr. Duncan and the department for listening more to the think-tank crowd and less to those "who are actually in the trenches doing the work in reaching students."

Meawhile, Mr. Duncan’s basketball prowess brought him unusual pop-culture visibility, especially after some star turns at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. He appeared on popular television programs like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

Like Mr. Duncan, whose father was a professor, his successor, Mr. King, is the child of educators. Mr. King’s mother was a middle-school guidance counselor, his father a public-school teacher and administrator. He has said he owes his life to the New York City teachers who inspired him after both of his parents died by the time he was 12.

In his brief remarks at the White House on Friday, Mr. King, 40, said he would devote himself to ensuring that "more Americans have access to high-quality education." He has taught high-school social studies in Puerto Rico and Boston and led charter schools on the East Coast. He has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a master’s in teaching from Columbia University’s Teachers College, a law degree from Yale University, and a doctorate in educational administrative practice from Teacher’s College.

"Everyone," he said at the White House, "deserves the kind of opportunity that I had."

It will be up to Mr. King and the under secretary for higher education, Ted Mitchell, to see through the department’s unfinished business, which includes putting into effect the gainful-employment rule, developing guidelines for awarding federal student aid in competency-based programs, and experimenting with alternative providers’ access to student-aid programs.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at