Oakland, CA – Complaints are an essential tool not only to resolve student problems but also to identify patterns of widespread misconduct in order to prevent ongoing harm to students and taxpayers. However, the current complaint landscape is complex and not well designed to serve students’ needs. Unheard Voices: The Case for Improving Higher Education Complaint Systems, a new report released today by The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), takes an in-depth look at systems in the current complaints landscape, and makes recommendations to improve their effectiveness, efficiency, and utility in consumer protection efforts.
Complaint portals are an important avenue for harmed students, but students often do not know that they have the right to file complaints and struggle to navigate potentially overlapping complaint systems at different agencies. Online education, which had become a prominent component of higher education even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, further complicates these issues. As students enroll across state boundaries, the question of where to file and resolve a complaint becomes even more confusing for students, institutions, and state governments.
“Over the last decade, we’ve seen that colleges can routinely lie to or mislead students as part of their business model,” notes report author and TICAS senior policy analyst Angela Perry. “Complaint systems are important tools to safeguard against abuses, but they can’t work if they are too complicated or difficult to navigate. Policymakers need to focus on what works for students, beyond what is simplest for schools or agencies.”
The report includes first-hand accounts from legal aid attorneys across the country, documents features of complaint systems that serve higher education students well, and includes a set of principles for complaint systems as well as recommendations for steps states, the federal government, and NC-SARA – a private entity that manages a state authorization reciprocity agreement in which 49 states participate – can take to improve existing complaints systems to better serve students.