Thought Leaders Gather to Launch Higher Education Committee of 50 Policy Discussions

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Individuals from all corners of college and university campuses received a crash course on the most pressing issues facing higher education as they gathered in Washington, DC on Tuesday for the first in-person convening of the Higher Education Committee of 50.

This national committee is comprised of college presidents, members of governing boards, enrollment managers, admissions staff, financial aid and bursar leaders, students, and other forward-thinking leaders from all sectors of postsecondary institutions. Together, the members will spend the next year examining policy areas related to access, affordability, accountability and transparency, and will produce four white papers with practical policy recommendations for members of Congress.

“What we are looking for from you all is forward-thinking ideas that not only highlight the innovative things happening on college campuses that get at access, affordability, accountability, and transparency, but also thinking about, at a federal level, policy changes that would support and make real change and gains in those four areas,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger.

Throughout the day, the committee members heard from subject matter experts in each of their four areas of focus: access, affordability, accountability and transparency, and in the afternoon sorted themselves into subgroups to focus on one of each of the issue topics.

“This meeting is really the kick-off of the Higher Education Committee of 50’s work,” said Charlotte Etier, NASFAA’s assistant director of research development and grants. “We really want to make sure that each committee member starts off with the same foundational level of knowledge on the topics to inform them going forward.”

The committee’s white papers with recommendations will be circulated among other associations, think tanks, scholars, practitioners, and the general public in the fall for comment and feedback. The final papers with updated recommendations will be publicly released in winter 2019.

During the first panel, which focused on access to postsecondary education, the committee heard from four panelists: David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), Sara Melnick of the National College Access Network (NCAN), Jim Hermes of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and Katie Berger of The Education Trust.

The panelists emphasized that the issue with access to higher education isn’t just getting students in the door—it’s also about ensuring they complete their programs and are prepared to enter the workforce after doing so.

Hawkins said that some of the access issues stem back to high school, and said students need equitable access to college preparatory curriculum in high school and school counselors need more support to be able to devote more individualized their students. Hawkins also said there should be a more robust investment in need-based financial aid. Several of the panelists agreed that part of access stems from financial aid, and that some central programs, such as the Pell Grant program, are no longer funded at a level to give low-income students the full support that they need.

Melnick said it’s also important to focus on eliminating barriers to postsecondary access by ensuring students have sufficient academic preparation and access to counseling, and that they’re exposed to a college-going culture.

The panelists generally agreed that lack of public support and investment act as an obstacle to college access.

“We seem, as a public, unwilling to invest in our educational infrastructure,” Hawkins said. “We have a relatively poor system” of transitioning students through pivotal crossroads in their educational journeys, such as from high school to college, and from college to employment.

Berger emphasized the need to recognize that in some cases, institutions may need additional resources to improve access and student support. Other issues within higher education, such as accountability measures, can impact access, she said. If state or federal governments want to implement accountability measures related to graduation rates or loan repayment rates, for example, Berger said they also need to look at the access factors, such as the student population at certain institutions.

“Increased accountability without increased resources exacerbates inequity,” she said.

During the second panel on accountability, the committee heard from three panelists: Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University, James Kvaal of the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), and Terry Hartiel of the American Council on Education (ACE).

The panelists discussed why accountability has become such an important topic in higher education, including the political and personal reasons lawmakers have turned their attention to so-called “risk-sharing” models to hold institutions more accountable for student outcomes. Kvaal said that the rise in popularity of accountability measures is two-fold: higher education has become increasingly important in American society in promoting upward mobility, but at the same time, there are some cases in which student loans appear to not be paying off for students, he said.

According to Hartle, policymakers have also taken more interest in the issue due to the large amount of money the federal government directs toward student aid programs.

“The stakes have gotten higher and it’s not clear that we’ve been doing a very good job,” he said. Policymakers are starting to question what the federal government and taxpayers are getting for the money invested.

While lawmakers generally agree that there should be some level of accountability for institutions, the agreement seems to end there as complicated questions around who should be sanctioned and in what form present challenges, Kelchen said.

There’s also concern from the institutional perspective, Hartle said.

“Should schools have more skin in the game? Sure,” he said. “I just can’t figure out how to do it without significant undesirable consequences.”

If designed incorrectly, institutions may respond to accountability measures by boxing out riskier students, or raise the price of going to college to offset the cost of any risk-sharing proposal, Hartle said.  

“Risk-sharing makes all the sense in the world, until you realize what’s going to happen when you put it into place,” he said.

During the third panel on affordability, the committee heard from three panelists: David Feldman of the College of William & Mary, Jamey Rorison of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), and Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute.

Feldman noted that much of the discussion around college affordability is related to the sharp increases in list price—and that attention directed toward high list, or sticker, prices can take away from a needed focus on keeping net price down for students with clear financial need.

“Part of the affordability problem is perception,” Baum said. “Even if we know many low-income families don’t have to pay tuition, they don’t know they don’t have to pay tuition.”

In some sense, she said, part of the affordability problem could be solved with better communication.

“It’s so clear that on average and for most people, getting a postsecondary degree pays off,” Baum said. One of the reasons there is trouble in communicating that message, she said, is some people encourage college attendance regardless of the reasons why, and regardless of the program or institution.

“The reality is that that’s just not an accurate statement across the board,” Baum said. “It does matter where you go. It does matter why you go.”

If part of the value and payoff of going to college comes from choosing the right program, students and families also need access to more and better information to make informed decisions, Rorison said. He also said it’s important to think about college affordability proposals in three ways: what is politically feasible, what is politically popular, and what is the best for equity purposes.

Free college programs, he said, are politically popular—and in some cases feasible—in many states. But from an equity standpoint, they might not always work. Some design flaws, such as a lack of an income cap or a “last dollar” structure, keep those programs from targeting funds to the neediest students.

“Don’t be afraid to be brazen in your policy recommendations. Be aggressive in your recommendations and just continue to think about what is going to help students from lowest income backgrounds,” Rorison said. “This is a great opportunity for you all to play a role in reshaping higher education in an equitable way.”

During the final panel on transparency, the committee heard from three panelists: NASFAA President Justin Draeger, Amy Laitinen of New America, and Elise Miller of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU).

The group focused on whether students and families have access to the information they need to make informed decisions about college, whether that information is delivered in a clear and meaningful way, and whether it is collected and stored in a private and secure way for students.

“Transparency is all the rage, and for good reason,” Laitinen said. “The current higher education system for students is opaque.”

Laitinen said that although “we’re drowning in data and information” in terms of what institutions report and what various state, federal, and private entities collect separately, students still don’t have what they need to make responsible decisions, and policymakers don’t have data and research necessary to bring about needed changes.

Part of the problem, Laitinen said, is that the federal government is prohibited from creating a student-level unit record system that could track things like the graduation rates of transfer or part-time students, or those who return to school after taking time off.

It’s also important to keep in mind, though, that overloading students with data that they don’t need, don’t want, or don’t know how to use, will not help in the end, Miller and Draeger said.  

Consumer testing for information disclosures will be crucial, Miller said.

“We assume a little too much about how we should present the information,” she said.

Policymakers and thought leaders also need to understand the differentiation between data that is available for research and data that is available for consumers, Draeger said.

Legislation, he said, “seems to be going in the direction of ‘we will give students more and we will give it to them annually, and they will certify that they see that.’”  

“It comes back to access. Either students are not digesting it or we’re putting another barrier between them and their financial aid,” Draeger said. “You start to wonder how many more steps can you put between a student and their money” to prove a point.

In the coming months, the committee members will work in their subgroups to formulate policy recommendations before gathering for their second in-person convening in the winter.

Publication Date: 3/20/2018

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