Start Broadly to Bridge the Partisan Divide on Higher Education

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Like most policy issues in the United States, higher education is not immune to the partisan divide that can often impede making meaningful progress toward solving concerns shared by stakeholders on both sides of the aisle. But before diving into more specific policy issues, policymakers need to identify shared values and areas of agreement.

That was the takeaway from a panel discussion hosted by the Urban Institute on Tuesday. The event built on a conversation started by a series of policy memos the institute released last month, which covered topics such as student loan repayment reform, and changes to the federal Pell Grant program. The authors of the memos focused on finding areas of bipartisan support in a time when there appears to be a deepening partisan divide regarding the value of higher education.

"We can debate the reasons for that divide, but I don't think we can debate that it's there, that it's new, and that it's dangerous," said Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University. "Of course we shouldn't fear disagreement … but we have to worry about whether we're losing sight of all the things we do agree on in the process."

Before writing the memos, the researchers and authors involved identified four areas of shared principles, Harris said, including: the federal government should subsidize higher education, especially for those limited by financial circumstances; the federal government should collect and disseminate information that can enhance market performance; the federal government must have basic eligibility standards for students and institutions that protect consumers and taxpayers, and; the federal government should support research conducted on college and university campuses.

Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina and former secretary of education under President George W. Bush, said bridging the partisan divide is "a tougher journey than it used to be, but still a trip worth taking."

"There are days when it seems like the entire sector has become just another political and cultural background, a venue for partisans to sharpen their differences and hone their most biting rhetoric," Spellings said. "Higher education is, without doubt, one of our nation's greatest success stories, but it needs continuous improvement to stay that way."

Spellings went on to say that some groups' "aversion to reasonable and meaningful accountability" in student outcomes has been a detriment. Much of the conversation focused on the need for better and more accessible data across several areas of higher education, for more partnerships between institutions and other groups (such as employers, industry leaders, and state agencies), and streamlining certain areas, such as the FAFSA and student loan repayment.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and former undersecretary of education under President Barack Obama, said higher education stakeholders also need to work to reframe the conversation around the value of a college education.

"What's missing in that is the idea … of higher education not just as an individual good, but as a social good," he said. "Higher education is one of the wellsprings of democracy. … It is the source of a lot of great development in civic culture across the country. That part of the debate has been missing. I think it's up to all of us to take that message forward."

Video of the entire panel discussion, and links to the policy memos are available on the Urban Institute's website.


Publication Date: 10/11/2017

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