After years of watching Democrats battle for-profit college abuses by subjecting them to job market performance measures, Republicans appear determined to do the same to the rest of US higher education.
As part of a planned year-long legislative overhaul effort, the top Republican on higher education policy, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, is seizing on an Obama administration rule that requires non-degree programmes to show student job success to remain eligible for federal aid.
“The concept of ‘gainful employment’ is OK,” Mr Alexander, chair of the education committee in the Republican-led Senate, said in outlining his strategy last week. “What is different about this proposal,” he said of his planned gainful employment expansion, was “that it would apply to every programme, and it would apply to every college – public, private and non-profit.”
That threatens a major ideological confrontation with Democrats now controlling the House, and serves as one of many signs that the ambitious goal of rewriting the foundational federal law governing US higher education at a time of intense partisan friction will again get bogged down and fail.
That law, known as the Higher Education Act, has not had a major revision since 2008. Lawmakers have generally seen updates as necessary every decade, if not faster given the rapid pace of technological change.
And both parties are feeling pressure to act now, with the public anxious about rising college costs and soaring student debt levels, and institutions seeking reduced regulatory demands and greater freedom to experiment with online models.
But political cooperation seems unlikely beyond such populist bromides as delivering a shorter version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – the 108-item questionnaire on family wealth that students must submit to the government for the purposes of federal aid allocations.
The idea of subjecting all college programmes to a gainful employment-style test of future student earnings – not just the job-oriented non-degree programmes common at for-profit colleges – is a simple concept with wide implications.
First of all, said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, the main US higher education lobby group, there is the forbidding logistical complexity. Federal records list thousands of college majors, and aggregating them to more manageable numbers would produce “all sorts of weird outcomes”, he said.
“The major category for ‘medicine’, for example, includes doctors and dentists. Fine,” Mr Hartle said. “But it also includes nurses, medical assistants and yoga instructors. Do we really think that such a number would be meaningful to anyone?”
Beyond such mechanical considerations, however, is the fundamental question of whether postsecondary education operating with taxpayer support should be serving any purpose beyond job training geared to the immediate needs of US industry.
Trump administration officials and many leading Republicans have increasingly portrayed US colleges as hotbeds of liberal indoctrination, and have urged colleges to give industry leaders a much stronger hand in deciding what is taught to students.
“Having business integrally involved with helping form and shape programmes and curriculums is an imperative, really, for connecting students with the possibilities” of their careers, US education secretary Betsy DeVos said during a college tour this past autumn.
Democrats hope to maintain a far more expansive view of higher education. “Not every degree can be quickly monetised,” the chair of the education committee in the Democrat-led House, Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, said at an event with Mr Alexander.
“A four-year on-campus liberal arts college experience is a transformational experience for a student,” Mr Scott said at the event, hosted by Inside Higher Ed. “We ought not limit that experience to those who can write $50,000 a year checks – we need to make sure that opportunity is available to all who are academically qualified.”
Some in his party are pushing even harder. Newly elected Representative Donna Shalala, a former university president, said that she would make all for-profit colleges ineligible for federal student aid. “I don’t see any place for taxpayer money to subsidise a business,” she said.