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U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, right, talks about grading higher ed based on outcomes Thursday with Third Way Senior Vice President for Social Policy & Politics Lane Erickson (peter urban / ctnewsjunkie)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Chris Murphy says it’s time for Congress to reinvent the way colleges and universities are accredited to put the emphasis on the real world outcomes of their students.

“The outcomes crisis in higher education is real and it threatens to bankrupt the students, families, and the American treasury if we don’t get serious about expecting better results from schools, soon,” he said, in a speech to the left-leaning Third Way policy organization on Thursday.

Murphy offered that the primary focus of accrediting non-profit and for-profit schools should be to make sure students and taxpayers are getting value for their investment — something the current system is not doing.

“There are 100 schools in America today, where over 28% of the students who attended are so financially destitute that they’ve gone into default,” said Murphy, noting that many are students who graduate with a degree that simply doesn’t lead to a job that pays enough to cover their high student loan debt.

“This crisis isn’t on the students. It’s on us,” he said. “We’ve established a convoluted, Byzantine incentive system for higher education in which schools are pushed to care about a million different inputs and outputs but very few of them have anything to do with the most important thing that we should be measuring and holding schools accountable — the outcomes of their students.”

Rather than a hodgepodge of requirements — that includes everything from school signage to the number of library books — he says value should be measured by a handful of metrics such as graduation rates, student loan repayment rates and the percentage of low-income and minority students admitted who graduate.

And, he says the federal government — or an accrediting board — should provide schools technical assistance along the way so that they can avoid falling off the cliff — losing their accreditation and federal Title 4 funding — in one fell swoop.

Murphy, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the time is now to consider revamping the system because Congress this year is considering reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. He also believes there is interest among Republicans and Democrats to address the issue as so many students graduate burdened by heavy student loan debt.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee wants to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and has signaled an interest in holding schools accountable for student outcomes. “When I told him last week I was coming here to give this speech and was starting to flesh out more concrete ideas around accountability, his eyes lit up,” Murphy said.

Murphy says the devil will be in the details but he expects Alexander can get his Republican colleagues to support a broad-based accountability system, though a major roadblock may be in whether there is the stomach to tackle higher education ahead of the 2020 elections.

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Murphy offers remarks at the Third Way policy organization on Thursday (peter urban / ctnewsjunkie)

“If we want to get something done this Congress, and if Democrats can coalesce around broad-based accountability, I think there’s a deal for the taking,” Murphy said.

Murphy plans to press his colleagues to act now rather than wait.

“We have this unique opportunity this Congress to reset the way that the federal government oversees colleges and I worry that if we don’t make this change now, it may be too late by the time that we get around to the next reauthorization,” he said.

Changing the oversight system will also go a long way to reshaping what a college education should look like.

“If you are forced to think about outcomes more seriously then you’re going to get more serious about the new models that will deliver that value to students,” he said. “It just makes no sense that we still require so many students to sit in classrooms for eight semesters to get a degree no matter how much they learned or how fast or what competencies they need in the professional world.”

Murphy made similar points on Wednesday at a HELP Committee hearing on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Watch it below: