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What's a college grad worth? Washington starts to ask.

The Department of Education's new rules aimed at making sure graduates of career colleges find 'gainful employment' could be a starting point for Congress to demand accountability of all higher education.

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Any teacher in higher education who cares about whether students are actually learning may want to take notice of something the Obama administration just did.

New rules issued Thursday by the Department of Education will hold accountable a rising sector of higher education – career colleges – on whether graduates are prepared enough for jobs in their fields.

In essence, these types of mainly for-profit schools will be shut down if graduates don’t have “gainful employment” to pay back their student loans.

While the new regulations are aimed mainly at preventing fraud, they also set a critical precedent for extending the federal hand into higher ed. All colleges and universities might someday be held responsible for the learning outcomes of students. Report cards could be issued on faculty to measure whether their teaching produced results for graduates in the workplace.

By 2013, Congress must renew the Higher Education Act. That law currently doles out billions each year, including loan money for students. The new rules for career colleges set the stage for lawmakers to consider whether all other schools receiving funds should be accountable to taxpayers – as well as education consumers – for proof of academic effectiveness.

Up to now, many schools have relied mostly on their reputations or their resources (faculty, buildings, sports, etc.) as a measure of their worth, not the earning power of graduates or their ability to pay back loans. But an “accountability movement” has been gaining, even inside higher ed.

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