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Lawmakers Discuss Best Practices for Innovation in Higher Ed

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

Although the higher education landscape looks very different than it did 15 years ago, many of its systems and practices are outdated — including the central governing law, the Higher Education Act (HEA), which is now 10 years overdue to be reauthorized.

A group of higher education policy experts spoke on Wednesday during a House education subcommittee hearing that explored ways in which Congress could work to reform and reauthorize HEA, and how specific partnerships can best promote positive student outcomes.

Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), chair of the subcommittee, said that while colleges and universities are key to preparing students for the workforce, many don’t complete their programs, largely due to the country’s “unaffordable, inflexible, and outdated” higher education system that no longer reflects today’s student population.

“This traditional framework is at odds with the modern university experience and student,” Owens said. “Over 30 percent of today’s students are non-traditional, meaning they could be 25 years or older, part-time enrollees, full-time workers, or in other unique situations.”

In his questioning of the witnesses Owens looked to highlight the importance of competency-based education (CBE), three-year college degree programs, the exploration of online education, and the usage of public-private partnerships — all methods that provide flexibility for nontraditional college students.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the subcommittee, highlighted concerning affordability trends that she said needed to be addressed, such as the declining purchasing power of the Pell Grant and insufficient state funding for higher education, which together contribute to students and families bearing more of the cost of college.

“These rising costs particularly burdens Black college students,” she said. “Over the last decade we are seeing declines in Black student enrollment and this is unacceptable.”

Dr. Tim Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University, detailed innovative efforts his institution has utilized to promote student success.

Specifically, Georgia State has addressed student financial pressures by using institutional student data to offer more personalized support, analyze enrollment risk factors, and identify students who may be in need of financial aid or other grant programs.

Since 2016, the university has used an artificial intelligence-enhanced texting platform that uses an institutionally-approved knowledge base of data to answer student questions, coach them through FAFSA completion, and even connect with tutoring, counseling, and aid.

“The collective impacts have been profound,” Renick said, noting the university’s graduation rate has increased by 70%, and graduation rates for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students have made notable progress as well."

The conversation also highlighted increased scrutiny being applied to the Parent PLUS loan program. Owens and Wilson remarked how the program has become a debt trap for Black families.

Keith Shoates, chief operating officer at the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI), detailed how his organization uses partnerships to offer alternatives to the Parent PLUS program and seeks to provide students with more flexible financing options.

Under SFI’s program, college juniors and seniors at certain historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) who are majoring in STEM programs are eligible to receive up to $20,000 for two years, an effective interest rate below the Parent PLUS loan, and repayment terms based on their income.

“Black students have two times the average debt, hold the debt twice as long, and are five times more likely to default after graduation compared to their white counterparts,” Shoates said. “This tells us that the traditional student loan may not be the most appropriate instrument to provide access to college specifically for students who begin their higher education journey with their parents already living in poverty.”

According to Shoates, SFI has disbursed an average of $12,000 to 267 eligible students for a total of approximately $3.3 million.

The conversation also covered how institutions of higher education can cope with budget cuts at the state level and how institutions should look to allocate resources.

“The knee-jerk reaction oftentimes is to cut the support staff, the advisors, the counselors, the financial aid staff, and so forth, which in many ways shoots yourself in the foot because these are the very people on a campus who will help generate tuition and revenues that will sustain these institutions,” Renick said.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the full House Committee on Education and the Workforce, asked how Congress can work to ensure that guardrails are in place for legislation that could expand usage of short-term Pell Grants, which has been an area of bipartisan interest.

Lanae Erickson, senior vice president of social policy, education, and politics at Third Way, urged the committee to legislate guardrails related to earnings data and ensure that students who make use of these programs have the capacity to not only pay back loans, but also to have higher earnings potential than a high school graduate.

The hearing largely stuck to areas in which both parties sought to work together. Members even considered potential site visits that could help them explore what types of programs are promoting access and affordability for postsecondary education.

“We’re extremely interested in the idea of innovation,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the full committee. “The goal I think on both sides of the aisle is to help students succeed, gain credentials, gain degrees, get good jobs and be contributing members to society.”

 

Publication Date: 6/15/2023


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