Higher education experts during a panel discussion Tuesday argued that policymakers will struggle to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) if they do not address fundamental questions related to the changing role of higher education.
During the discussion, hosted by Duke in DC, the panelists agreed that it is highly unlikely that Congress will pass a bill to reauthorize the HEA in 2018 — despite steps taken by the House and Senate to draft legislation — and that progress will continue to slow if it does not resolve outstanding issues related to what role the federal government should play in higher education, how to determine the quality of an education, and what "ensuring access" to higher education means.
The House released its bill, the PROSPER Act, in December and it is waiting for a vote on the floor. Although the Senate has yet to release its bill, a Senate committee has held a series of hearings to inform the legislation, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) published a white paper outlining his priorities for the reuathorization, and Senate Democrats released a list of their principles.
While it seems like progress is being made toward reauthorization, James Bergeron, president of the National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER), said that policymakers need to take a step back and decide what they are trying to accomplish in this bill if they want to establish policy that best serves students for the next 10 years.
"I don't think there is even consensus around what we are trying to solve," Bergeron said.
Bergeron argued that policymakers need to determine what role the federal government should play in higher education moving forward. While traditionally its main focus was to allocate and disburse federal funds, there is newfound push to enlist the government in ensuring that institutions are high-quality, which then opens the floor to new questions as to how to define quality, Bergeron said.
"I don't think we're at a point where anyone has answers to those questions," he said.
Denise Forte, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, argued that if the purpose of the HEA is to ensure access to higher education, policymakers need to delve into what this means for the changing demographic of students enrolling in college today. While ensuring access to college used to refer to providing needy students with funds to finance their education, there is now a new need to establish policy to support students in overcoming obstacles in addition to a lack of funds, such as childcare for adult learners, Forte argued.
"We can't treat access as narrowly as we used to," Forte said. "We really need to be looking at what the new constituency is."
Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, argued that policymakers need to address the purpose of higher education, and whether they should judge institutions by students' vocational outcomes, or by the myriad of other attributes a higher education provides students with, such as critical thinking skills.
While Lederman said he thinks that "higher education policy is going to stagnate," and the other panelists were not hopeful that policymakers will pass a bill to reauthorize the HEA soon, he argued it is initiatives by high education stakeholders, states, and institutions that can have a real impact on the future of higher education.
"Federal policy does not define what higher education is," Lederman said. "The federal government has a role in how we ensure access, but it is only a piece of the puzzle."
Publication Date: 3/14/2018