Higher education advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and what issues lawmakers need to consider while working on it. That is, if they are able to work on it at all in today’s highly politicized climate.
The event, “The Higher Education Act at 50: A Time for Reflection and Revitalization,” was hosted by the Lumina Foundation and featured four panels throughout the day, with a total of 14 speakers. The panel topics were wide-ranging, from reflections on success and failures of past reauthorizations to the need to address in the legislation the challenges faced by today’s students.
There were, however, several themes that were highlighted on each panel, including the need for more equity and accountability in higher education, better data on student outcomes and cost, and the polarizing political climate policymakers face today.
Overall, the federal government is not keeping pace with the students that need financial aid for college the most – the low-income, minority, and first-generation students, according to a panel that discussed equity and the HEA.
Deborah Santiago, CEO and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, said that there are three barriers to equity in higher education, the first of which is a greater need to focus on completion rather than access. Second is the “tension” between efficiency to completion and the effectiveness of an education, followed by implementation of policies, the details of which “don’t always address the inequities,” she said.
Lorelle Espinosa, assistant vice president at the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, said that state disinvestment in higher education in particular is negatively impacting the schools that enroll the most disadvantaged students. She added that there needs to be a closer look at the data collected in these states and a better way to guide institutions using merit-based models of aid so that equity is preserved.
Institutional accountability policies also need to be taken into consideration during HEA reauthorization, said Andrew Kelly, resident scholar and director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Education Reform. Under the current system, there is a large proportion of students who are “getting access [to higher education] in name only” due to a poor system of accountability.
To fix this problem, Kelly said, consumers need to be active participants in the higher education market, not only by “voting with their feet,” but by demanding that bad actors be held accountable. Colleges also need to have “skin in the game” by being held financially responsible for a percentage of their students’ loans that go into default.
Better data for consumers was also a popular topic throughout that day, with many calls for a student unit record and more data on student outcomes. Postsecondary education “is data-rich but information-poor,” said Jennifer Engle, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Currently, the national infrastructure for higher education data is a series of disconnected systems and incoherent policies, making it difficult to use the data collected to answer questions students have, Engle said. It’s a problem that can be solved in reauthorization “if we commit to doing so,” she added.
But solving anything during reauthorization is a long shot given the overwhelmingly partisan climate in Congress, according to many of the panelists.
The politics surrounding higher education have become more polarizing in general, Penn Hill Group Principal Alex Nock said, adding that issues like affordability and accountability have become high-profile “campaign issues,” which makes it more challenging to address at all policy levels.
During the same panel, former Rep. Howard Phillip “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) reflected on his time as chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, saying he and his colleagues were able to pass legislation because they were willing to work together on common goals rather than fighting what they saw as losing battles.
“There are 435 members in the House … and each brings something to the table,” McKeon said. “When you exclude one of the [political] parties … you lose half the brain power in the nation and that is a very big problem.”
Publication Date: 10/15/2015