Policymakers Discuss Nation's Success in Reaching Goals of HEA

By Angel Flores, NASFAA Policy Intern 

An event held yesterday at The Newseum in Washington D.C. brought a panel of experts together to discuss the higher education reforms and innovations that should be considered as reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) approaches.

Hosted by National Journal and underwritten by the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the “The Next America Taking Stock: 50 Years of the Higher Education Act” event encouraged interactive participation from those in attendance –  both vocally, through a Q & A session, and on social media channels using the hashtag #NJNextAmerica.  

Featured speakers included:  

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
  • Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education

Mitchell set the tone for the event by reminding attendees of President Johnson’s promise and commitment to providing education to all Americans. He attributed several of the nation’s educational milestones — including the highest ever high school graduation rates and overall educational accomplishments of students of color, low-income learners, and students with disabilities — to the ongoing hard work of America’s educators, but reminded attendees there are still pressing issues to tend to. 

Since President Johnson’s declarations, “we’ve made progress, but the task has never been more urgent, and our work is far from complete,” Mitchell said. 

When pressed on issues he felt would be relevant during reauthorization Mitchell listed items including: continuing to simplify loan programs and access to federal student aid, protecting the Pell Grant Program and its purchasing power, and further exploring something similar to President Obama’s Free Community College program, possibly at the state and local level. He also indicated the Postsecondary Institutional Ratings System (PIRS) is still on track for its 2015 academic year release, and that the Department of Education (ED) is reviewing feedback received during their December 2014 request for comments – which NASFAA submitted comments for. 

Echoing some of Mitchell’s points, Sen. Alexander expressed a need to make the FAFSA less daunting, touting his bipartisan Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act, released in January, which proposed a highly simplified application in which the required data (identifying information, family size, and income) could be accommodated by a postcard. Simplifying the application will cast a wider net and increase aid given to students, Alexander said. He also discussed the white papers his office released earlier this year on accreditation issues, deregulation, and data transparency and the re-introduction of year round Pell (which NASFAA has proposed as a Pell Well). 

After Mitchell and Alexander spoke, and answered audience questions, the event held a response panel to discuss the aforementioned priorities. Panelists included:

  • Sarita Brown, President of Excelencia in Education
  • Muriel Howard, President of American Association of State Colleges and Universities
  • Cheryl Hyman, Chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago 
  • Andrew Kelly, Director of Center on Higher Education Reform,  AEI 
  • Aaron Smith, Senior Strategic Advisor and Co-Founder of Young Invincibles  

One pressing issue, Kelly said, is how to improve college accountability and risk sharing. 

“The current way we hold colleges accountable is through the Cohort Default Rate (CDR), which measures the percentage of students that default in a three-year window after they finish school,” Kelly said. This measure of institutional performance is less meaningful because students are able to sign up for income-based repayment and other protections, which do not give an accurate picture, Kelly argued. 

“Colleges should be put on the hook financially for some amount of the risk of default,” said Kelly who suggested giving colleges the authority to devise a plan of execution however they see fit, as long as they accomplish what they are being held accountable for. 

When asked, Smith agreed that “risk-sharing” is an important component of reforming higher education because it means “schools have some skin in the game.” Looking at the repayment rates in addition to the CDR rates could be an effective measurement tool in assessing institutional performance, Smith added.

Although this particular method to increase access to student aid was not supported by the entire speaker panel, the consensus was that a change needs to occur in order to reach more students.  

On the whole, the forum of key stakeholders agreed that in order to keep America in the lead worldwide for post-secondary college degrees, competition and innovation need to be improved domestically.


Publication Date: 6/10/2015

Lori V | 6/10/2015 12:9:38 PM

Agree George J....In reading a recent article on "who defaults" by S. Baum, it was noted that it is often students who do not finish college. As a college/university we admit those who meet admissions standards with the intent that the applicant wants to be in college. We do all we can to provide appropriate support services and activities for engagement for thousands...and yet, for some students that still isn't enough. Some come under prepared by their K-12 experience despite meeting the GPA requirement....some don't want to be in college someone else had that expectation of them. Colleges/Universities cannot force students to perform and attend every class. Our academic policies, SAP and other such things provide a way to recognize some of those students. Once they leave our campuses there is little we can do. In addition, we have students who are brilliant, 4.0s but their social skills may be lacking and they cannot land a job, or keep one once obtained. There are things families and society as a whole have helped to create in each of us....for some more than others.....for those who fall short or are under prepared, OR worse yet, just never intend to repay loans from the onset....how do we as institutions deal with that once they leave us? How can we be held accountable for things out of our control? The CDR imposes enough restrictions, sanctions, etc. Other than working with institutions on better regulations on awarding loans, stronger default aversion plans, financial literacy, etc.....I don't it is even fair to say a school will have further accountability because you will be on the hook financially. The students we serve in an urban low income first generation city versus the best and brightest at an institution 100 miles away cannot be held to the same standard. Our missions are different, our students are different...

George J | 6/10/2015 11:15:34 AM

While I'm not completely opposed to some risk-sharing by colleges, it seems like such a policy would potentially compromise colleges' ability to keep costs down. It would be interesting to hear someone who has thought about this weigh in.

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