America’s colleges and universities are terribly inefficient and excessively expensive, foster relatively little learning and ability to think critically, and turn out too many graduates who end up underemployed. These and related problems have grown sharply in the half century since the Higher Education Act of 1965 heralded a major expansion of the federal role in higher education, but some mildly hopeful signs are now emanating from Capitol Hill. In three papers issued by his staff, Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and a former university president himself, has indicated that he wants to do potentially three useful things as the Higher Education Act comes up for another reauthorization.

First, he seems to embrace the idea that colleges should have “skin in the game”: They should face financial consequences for admitting, and then failing to graduate, students who default on loans and have marginal educational backgrounds indicating that they were clearly ill prepared for truly higher education.