Messaging Playbook: How to Talk About Accountability in Higher Ed

Messaging Playbook: How to Talk About Accountability in Higher Ed

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Each year, nearly 20 million students attend colleges and universities across the United States, making one of the biggest investments of their lifetime. Taxpayers invest $130 billion in those institutions each year, giving us all a stake in the outcomes of those students. And yet, only half of students that start college ever finish (a statistic that becomes even more abysmal when you look at low-income students and students of color), and students who don’t graduate are three times as likely to default on their loans. Getting students to college is not enough; we must also help them get through college and gain the skills they need to find good jobs and pay off their loans—especially as the nation rebuilds from the COVID-19 pandemic and more Americans need a higher education credential to improve their economic prospects.

Pulling back the curtain further shows that many colleges have an insufficient responsibility for the outcomes of their students, and while not all colleges and universities are bad actors, federal taxpayer dollars continue to flow to institutions across the country that don’t deliver on the opportunity higher education is designed to provide--sending a blank check to schools and asking for little to no accountability in return. It’s clear our nation’s higher education system needs additional guardrails to ensure that bad actors do not profit off students and taxpayers--a concern even greater post-pandemic--and that degrees maintain their rigor and value.

Despite the realities of higher education’s leaky pipeline and the inequities that persist throughout the system, advocates and policymakers face several roadblocks when talking about the need to strengthen accountability in higher education. Too often, policymakers and other DC influencers myopically view higher education through their own elite experiences that are far divorced from today’s students. And talk of poor graduation rates or other bad outcomes can quickly turn into a game of blaming the student, absolving institutions of all responsibility to deliver a return on their investment. And too often, the media narratives dominating the headlines about higher education focus on bumper sticker ideas like free college or debt cancellation, diverting attention away from a much broader portfolio of reforms needed to make higher education deliver for all who attend.

To improve opportunities for the millions of students enrolled in colleges and universities, Congress needs to put in place a variety of accountability mechanisms, including but not limited to: making higher education more transparent so prospective students and their families know how well a program’s graduates fare in the job market before they decide to enroll; requiring colleges and universities receiving taxpayer dollars to be accredited and having that accreditation process be more outcomes-focused; protecting student loan borrowers from predatory institutions that lie to get them to enroll; limiting access to federal grants and loans that leave students with loan debt higher than they can earn; and allowing students who have been defrauded by predatory schools to cancel their loans. To move the needle on these conversations, and shift attention towards making sure all students and taxpayers get a better return on investment from higher education, Third Way, in partnership with Global Strategy Group, has undertaken a multi-year, multi-round public opinion research project beginning in 2016 to learn how a variety of key audiences (parents, students, college administrators, business leaders, DC elites, and more) talk about improving student outcomes and holding institutions accountable for the results they deliver.

This messaging guide offers our top ten lessons learned from our research, which is intended to help policymakers and advocates across the ideological spectrum talk about accountability in a way that will open—not close—doors to the changes they seek. These recommendations offer insight into how to effectively communicate the need for greater federal oversight in higher education, magnify the importance of students and taxpayers seeing a return on their investment, and shift the unhelpful narratives depicted in the media that fail to reflect a more wholesale reform agenda that is needed to improve student outcomes.

Messaging Guide

1. Define today’s students.

As evidenced by one quote we heard in a round of in-depth interviews with business leaders— “Dad, you were so right sending me to Trinity [College], because... …I can roll in the Hamptons, I can roll in Nantucket…”—the higher education experience of most Members of Congress and business elites is markedly different from most of today’s college students. Many policymakers attended highly selective four-year institutions of higher education, often completed in four years’ time, and at tuition rates that are a fraction of what students pay today. Yet, data on current college enrollment highlight just how divorced this experience is for most of today’s students—who are more diverse than any previous generation of college students, with 37% over the age of 25, 40% attending college part-time, 34% first-generation, 24% student parents, 31% low-income, and 64% working full-time while they attend.1 And, unlike many policymakers’ elite college experiences, today’s students attend a variety of schools, with 71% enrolled in 4-year colleges, 29% enrolled in 2-year colleges, 26% at private schools, 74% at public schools, and roughly half of all students at broad access institutions.2

To bridge the gap between federal policy and the needs of today’s students, policymakers need to understand who today’s students are and how their postsecondary experiences vary from their own. Allowing students to be the narrators of their own stories by elevating their voices is an important way to ensure the message isn’t tone-deaf and accurately represents the greatest challenges faced by students navigating the higher education system.

2. Take precaution to avoid blaming students.  

One of the biggest challenges to enacting an accountability agenda is figuring out how to talk about holding institutions accountable without triggering the automatic rebuttal that students are to blame if they fail. The concept of “failure” is often pinned either on a lack of responsibility by the student or the idea that a student is simply not qualified to attend college and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In one round of research, a voter exemplified this instinct to blame college students for poor outcomes by saying: “A low graduation rate is usually caused by “unmotivated students” and I would say, the students don’t care, and to fix it, you accept students of a higher standard.”

College graduates take pride in having worked hard to earn a degree themselves, and college is widely seen as a time in which students are adults with the self-agency to make their own decisions. But this thinking has resulted in an overfocus on the responsibility a student has when it comes to their own success, without also acknowledging the college’s role to provide basic outcomes for its students, thereby discounting the scale of the return-on-investment problem in higher education. And focusing on certain underrepresented groups of students (students of color, low-income students, etc.) is even more unhelpful—quickly leading many voters to blame those students for their poor outcomes and excuse the institutions that are serving them. While left-leaning audiences respond well to references of “underrepresented students,” this phrase and other demographic qualifiers need to be deployed carefully and with plenty of context to ensure they don’t trigger a response that “some students” just “aren’t college material.”

3. Specify that college provides an “opportunity,” not a “promise” of outcomes. 

A common sentiment voiced when making the case for increased accountability in higher education is the idea that, “colleges have failed to make good on their promises to students.” However, there’s a strong belief among American voters that colleges do not “promise” much of anything to students, and that if a student decides to attend college, it is then up to that student to be successful. Yet, a more nuanced look into this sentiment reveals that voters do believe colleges should offer students an opportunity to succeed– “A school promises them an opportunity to learn and be enriched. Whether that student learns and is enriched depends on the student.”

 As a result, institutions should be held accountable for the opportunity they provide to students they enroll, and most people can agree that a school with a 1 in 10 graduation rate is not providing much of an opportunity from the start for its students. A more salient way to change hearts and minds on policies around institutional accountability is instead to reframe the accountability question around the opportunity that colleges should provide those students who enroll. Coupling student responsibility with school accountability is a more persuasive message as it takes ownership for the role students have in their own success.  Making this case requires proving some colleges are getting such bad outcomes that the institution itself must be doing something wrong—not just the students—and thus no real opportunity existed for success in the first place. And offering up explicit assurances the institution has provided to their students and highlighting how they have fallen short in delivering on these opportunities is a particularly convincing argument.

4. Focus on “power” instead of “responsibility.”

For colleges that have systemic quality problems, it is also key for advocates to adjust their language to focus on which actors have “power” instead of “responsibility” when it comes to who can improve poor outcomes. Doing so reduces the risk of blaming students (as “responsibility” conjures up an individual characteristic for most voters, whereas “power” evokes systemic change) and frames up a robust role for both the federal government and institutions themselves to protect consumers from poor-performing colleges. As we saw in a round of focus groups with students and parents, asking voters who is “responsible” for educational outcomes is more likely to elicit a response that points to the students themselves: “Students choose to go to school so it is mostly on them to get it done.”

 But when prompted with the same question replacing the word “responsibility” with “power,” a Latino student noted: “At first I was thinking it was the colleges… But thinking back through [the data] and the graduation rates…I’m thinking more that the state laws do have more to do with it.”

The success of this framing was confirmed in a post-COVID round of national polling conducted with likely voters and college administrators. When asked about who has the “responsibility” to ensure a college degree is valuable after the coronavirus pandemic, both sets of respondents said students have the most responsibility--outranking seven other entities, including institutions of higher education, the federal government, state and local government, and the President of the United States. But when we posed the same question changing the word to “power,” colleges and universities took the lead, followed by institutional leadership and college professors, while students fell in their ranking to fourth place.

5. Spotlight system-wide (or aggregate) student outcomes data. 

Providing local examples of outcomes data—including statistics on graduation rates and earnings data at individual institutions—appears to give people an “out” to explain away poor outcomes. It’s common to feel a sense of pride and affinity for colleges in your own backyard, or simply find it easier to explain away low numbers when seeing them in isolation or thinking about the student body of a particular local school. And as evidenced by multiple rounds of focus groups with students and parents, rather than expressing outrage for systemic failures, participants had a more muted response to seeing school-level data—perhaps because they had no way of knowing how a school’s outcomes fit into a national context, or because they could explain them away as outliers or make excuses for certain kinds of schools that serve certain kinds of students.

By contrast, highlighting broader outcomes data, especially when presented as a system-wide problem, triggers outrage among students and parents because it contextualizes the dismal nature of outcomes in our nation’s higher education system in a way that no individual school’s data could do. Using aggregate data to demonstrate the expansiveness of the problem, resonates more with voters. For example, this statement was met with ire by voters of every stripe: “The problem is getting so bad that institutions with less than 1 in 10 graduation rates are encouraging students to take out taxpayer-funded loans. In fact, higher education institutions with less than a 10% graduation rate received $3 billion in taxpayer money from the federal government just last year.”

6. Underscore how the abuse of taxpayer dollars is a systemic problem.

Elite institutions are traditionally called out in the media for offering their students luxury perks like lazy rivers and climbing walls that have nothing to do with the instruction their students receive. But the misuse of taxpayer dollars in our higher education system is not isolated to any one sector, and it is critical to show that funds being wasted is a systemic issue that shows up in many forms throughout higher education (and is not limited to just a few bad apples). Luckily, messaging that alludes to institutions spending money on lavish perks like recreational facilities, bonuses for board members, and high administrative salaries evoke the need for government action in voters across the political spectrum.

There’s a shared sentiment among voters across the political and demographic spectrum that higher education is making a killing and institutions are not being held accountable. The concept of “institutional self-interest” is an overarching framework that can be applied across the board, especially when colleges and universities are prioritizing other expenditures over student and instructional supports. Making the point that federally-funded institutions are abusing taxpayer dollars is especially crucial to channel the ire of more conservative Americans and demonstrate the need for government involvement in the solution, as evidenced by a comment we heard from an engaged Republican voter—“The grant money should only be allowed for improving student outcomes and not able to be spent on administration or recreational items.”

This messaging also allows advocates to call out individual institutions that employ these bad practices to help drive the desire for greater accountability and increased federal oversight in higher education. And explicitly conveying specific institutional misdeeds can help to mitigate the “blame the student” mentality that often drives conversations surrounding institutional accountability for student outcomes. When presented with abuse of taxpayer dollars messaging during online discussion boards, a D.C. elite voter noted: “Many colleges and the like are cozying up to alumni and board members, seemingly knowing that grant and taxpayer funding will dry up sooner than most think. Many big name/high reputation schools are not investing in distance learning, which would save on costs for middle class families… At the very simplest of expectations, many schools exhibit poor customer service to their main customer base, which in any private sector company, would result in a firing of the brain behind the idea.”  

7. Highlight predatory actors and the lack of basic guardrails.

The existing federal guardrails in our nation’s higher education system are extremely limited, leaving institutions with little to no accountability for helping students get across the finish line or get set up to successfully repay their loans. As we saw in one of several polls conducted of voters nationally, voters generally need a “bad actor” to point to in order to drive urgency about the problem, such as a for-profit or non-profit institution misusing taxpayer and student funds by targeting students for recruitment, encouraging them to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and leaving them with little or no training to get a job in their field. One school told prospective students that it placed 70 to 99% of students in jobs, when in reality that number hovered around the 20 to 30% range. The power of this message—across all ideologies but especially among more government-intervention-resistant Republicans—stems from their belief that government should not act as a proactive entity that imposes its will on the higher education system, but rather one that reacts to abuse and punishes the entities that have clearly misled or misinformed consumers. Specifically, this messaging supersedes skepticism about federal action because it is viewed by Republicans through a “law and order” lens, appealing to the moral foundations of more conservative Americans—especially when it comes to those institutions taking in huge amounts of federal taxpayer dollars every year but providing little value in return. An engaged Republican voter shared—“There should definitely be some government involvement to regulate this, particularly because these institutions are for-profit but also receiving grants and taxpayer money.”

Democrats, who are generally open to more government intervention, also found this message very persuasive, though they viewed it through a “fairness” lens as opposed to law and order. To them, it is fundamentally unfair for big, wealthy, and predatory for-profit institutions to sell the promise of a better life to students if they are providing little intention of following through—“These schools seem to take advantage of their students. There should be strict parameters for these types of schools controlled by the government.” These different values drive Republicans and Democrats to the same place, which is a greater desire for government action to ensure students and taxpayers get a return on their higher ed investment. Understanding these underlying values is critical when framing messages that can persuade policymakers on both sides of the aisle to care about federal oversight.

Voters across the board also worry that without strong guardrails and consumer protections, bad actors will flourish post-COVID by preying upon vulnerable populations (like low-income students, students of color, and student veterans). In fact, 65% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans agree “It’s best for the federal government to provide direct relief to students,” rather than going to institutions that may use it to prey upon students.

8. Evoking the need for a federal watchdog is a potent message.

Businesses and organizations are all held accountable for results, but few guidelines exist for results in higher education programs or how their taxpayer resources are spent. If companies or non-profit organizations had outcomes that looked like many current higher education institutions, they would go out of business or their boards would shut them down. But colleges with abysmal outcomes continue to take student tuition, federal aid, and taxpayer dollars without any need to show results.

So, where is the federal watchdog? If other industries should be regulated, so too should higher education – and that messaging resonates with voters across the aisle including college administrators and business leaders. In a survey of 211 college administrators, when asked what role the federal government should have in higher education, “oversight and regulation” rose to the top, second only to “controlling costs and student loans.” And 63% of respondents said they agreed “the federal government should regulate for-profit, non-profit, and public higher education institutions to make sure they are providing a good return on investment to their students”, demonstrating support for a watchdog across all sectors of the higher education system.

And in focus groups with students and parents, a Latino parent noted: “The federal government are the ones that pass these laws and are supposed to keep track of these things. They need to put a watchdog at colleges.”

It’s particularly persuasive to marry watchdog messaging with poor student outcomes. When asked “what sanctions should higher education institutions face if they are receiving federal money but are leaving most of their students unable to earn enough to pay back their loans?”, 57% of respondents said they should be required to publicly disclose their student outcomes, and 44% said they should face immediate review by their accreditor.

9. Describe value as a return on investment.

The value of quality instruction is incredibly hard to measure in higher ed—a task that is likely to become even more challenging as institutions of higher education move coursework online in response to and in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s for this reason that measuring “value” in terms of positive post-enrollment student outcomes resonates more with voters. “[Higher education] is providing value if their students are able to get jobs when they are done. Value is found in preparing them to be successful when they get a job. It's not just what happens in the books or classroom.”

When asked how to gauge the value of a college degree during focus groups, a Black college student replied: “Are you able to get a job with your degree? Does it make you more competitive?” and an engaged Republican voter answered— “To me a program has real value if the students who graduate are offered well-paying jobs with well-respected companies. If a university is turning out well qualified people on a regular basis and those graduates are being hired by top companies then that university has a proven track record.”

A college’s value is viewed first and foremost by its ability to provide students and taxpayers with a return on their investment—a steady stream of graduates who can get good jobs and pay back their loans. It’s persuasive to connect the dots between “value” and “return on investment” when creating messaging targeted at voters across the ideological spectrum, as 78% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans agree the federal government should regulate for-profit, non-profit, and public higher education institutions to make sure they are providing a good return on investment to students.

10. Reference the need for federal watchdog intervention based on economic cost of inaction.

Americans view the value of higher ed through an economic lens—both in terms of individual return on investment and how it relates to the country’s ability to compete on a global scale. To successfully illustrate how our failure to focus on student outcomes is harming America’s ability to compete economically, advocates should make the case that without federal oversight, poor-performing and predatory schools will leave their students worse off than before they started. Across the board, more than eight in ten voters (from a national poll of likely 2020 voters) said it was important for Congress to prioritize increasing guardrails to protect students from predatory and poor-performing schools—and 86% of Democrats and more than three-quarters of Republican voters agreed amplified federal oversight was critical to student success.

And it isn’t just about an individual student—broad access to a quality college education is also seen as indispensable for the future success of our economy as a whole. As one participant offered and others echoed in a round of online discussion boards – “If colleges and universities fail, our future is bleak. US standard of living will decline and our position as a leader will diminish. America with ineffective colleges would make this country look like a third world country, with jobs scarce, innovation lacking, technology behind the rest of the world.” These views are underpinned by the sense that while college is still worthwhile and valuable, higher education institutions are failing to respond to a rapidly changing economy— an outlook that is felt even more strongly as the nation rebuilds post-pandemic. As such, voters have an increased appetite for reforms that promote and promise value, including addressing the high costs of college, ensuring students can advance economically, and ensuring students can repay their loans.

There is broad support, even among higher education institutional leaders, for government oversight measures like making student-level outcome and economic data publicly accessible. And students want higher education institutions to address their deepening economic pain--where 69% of college students said they would be more likely to re-enroll if their institution were “demonstrating positive employment outcomes for students through job placement rates or average wages.”


Our nation’s higher education system was established to open the doors of opportunity– but it’s not delivering for all students, leaving many to question whether college is worth it. To move away from this unhelpful rhetoric and ensure students and taxpayers see a return on their investment, we must change the conversation to focus on how Congress can best strengthen federal accountability in our higher education system. This messaging guide based on extensive rounds of our public opinion research provides an initial framework for how to begin moving the needle on accountability-related conversations with a variety of key stakeholders across the political spectrum. Third Way plans to continue this messaging work for the next two years to see how these views change as the country continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and a new Congress and Administration present the opportunity to reshape higher education policy for decades to come.


Over the past three and a half years, Global Strategy Group has conducted numerous research projects with Third Way about higher education. Recommendations in this memo are based on findings from the following projects:

  • Online focus groups between August 17th and August 20th, 2016 among 30 participants to learn how non-issue area experts view higher education institutions and experiences. Care was taken to make the groups as representative as possible of the US college population, with respect to age, gender, and race.
  • Ten focus groups among a total of 80 higher education students and parents held between November 7th and November 14th, 2017 in Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Charlotte.
  • Ten in-depth interviews with business leaders in fields ranging from consulting to manufacturing from around the country from February 14th to March 16th, 2018.
  • Three online discussion boards between May 9th and May 11th, 2018 among 67 voters, including one board of 22 “engaged” Democratic voters nationwide, one board of 21 “engaged” Republican voters nationwide, and one board of 24 D.C. area opinion elite voters.
  • An online survey of 3,000 general population interviews between July 20th and July 29th, 2018 incorporating MaxDiff message rankings.
  • An online, nationwide survey of 211 college administrators between March 13th and March 20th, 2019. These administrators worked across public, private, and proprietary or for-profit institutions, as well as four-year colleges, community colleges, and vocational schools.
  • An online, nationwide survey of 1,398 likely 2020 voters between April 30th and May 9th, 2019.
  • An online, nationwide survey of 1,003 likely 2020 Democratic primary voters between November 1st and November 9th, 2019. The survey oversampled 1,248 voters in four early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina).
  • An online survey of 2,700 likely voters in 9 states (CO, IN, LA, MO, NC, OH, PA, SC and UT) between March 4th and March 11th, 2020.
  • An online discussion board among 30 current college students between May 12th and May 15th, 2020. Within this group, 9 had extensive online learning experience pre-coronavirus, while 21 had only limited online learning experience pre-coronavirus. Care was taken to make the groups as representative as possible of the US college population, with respect to age, gender, and race.
  • An online, nationwide survey of 1,000 likely voters between June 8th and June 14, 2020 looking at how voters’ perceptions of higher education have shifted post-coronavirus.
  • An online, nationwide survey of 1,407 college students between August 6th and August 17th, 2020 looking to understand the educational challenges and enrollment decisions they are making due to the coronavirus pandemic. The survey oversampled 223 caregivers, 253 Black students, 311 Latinx students, and 211 high school seniors.
  • An online, nationwide survey of 1,000 likely voters and 200 institutional leaders between November 17th and December 1st, 2020 looking to understand how perceptions of value in higher education have shifted post-coronavirus.
  • An online, nationwide survey of 1,008 college students between December 2nd and December 15th, 2020 looking to understand the educational challenges and enrollment decisions they are making due to the coronavirus pandemic, one semester later (the initial survey was conducted in August 2020). The survey sampled 90 caregivers, 165 Black students, 112 Latinx students, and 207 high school seniors.
  • Higher Education653


  1. Updated 101: Today’s Students. (2021). Higher Learning Advocates. Washington, DC,

  2. Hillman, N. (2020). Why Rich Colleges Get Richer & Poor Colleges Get Poorer. Third Way, Washington, DC,


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