Few pieces of federal legislation have done more to open the doors of opportunity to millions of Americans than HEA. The law has benefitted generations of students who might not otherwise have afforded college. It has also benefitted our democracy and economy, providing the basis for a highly educated citizenry and workforce. But as we approach HEA’s 50th anniversary, it’s time to take stock of how well the law is meeting the needs of students today. A lot has changed in fifty years. A lot has even changed since the last reauthorization in 2008, which happened just before the Great Recession laid bare the devastating consequences of not having college-level skills and credentials. And while enrollments in higher education have grown steadily over the last few decades, too many students either never graduate or do not acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. We believe that part of the problem stems from our federal higher education polices which need to be re-thought and re-engineered for a new age.
As policymakers prepare to reauthorize HEA, it is important they take stock of the social and economic trends shaping both the supply and demand of higher education. In particular:
- Students aren’t who you think they are: They come from increasingly diverse backgrounds, most do not live on campus, and many are older, already working, and juggling family responsibilities.
- Jobs aren’t what they used to be: More jobs than ever before require a college credential, while job tenure and security have both declined.
- The transition from college to a career is a lot harder: While college graduates have fared far better than their counterparts with only a high school degree, they earn less, take longer to find good jobs, and are much more likely to be saddled with students loans than any generation of students before them.
- The cost of college has risen dramatically: By one estimate, the cost of college has increased twelvefold since 1980 and there is no indication that prices will go down anytime soon. Rising tuition, in turn, is driving demand for loans and the increased use of borrowing raises the stakes of higher education for both students and taxpayers. Our policies need to do more to protect both.
- Outcomes are what matter. Institutions should be rewarded for graduating students - not just enrolling them. And we all need to know more about the employment and earnings of students once they leave college.
- Federal financial aid policies need to be more flexible. The federal student aid programs do too little to support students who are older, returning to school, or seeking specific skills and credentials for work.
- Higher education needs to do more to connect learning and work. We need to get rid of the artificial distinction between learning in the classroom and learning at work. HEA reauthorization should encourage institutions to expand experiential learning opportunities and foster more opportunities for work-based learning.
- Accreditation processes need to be more transparent and rigorous. Our quality assurance system is fragmented, duplicative, secretive, and overly focused on institutional inputs and processes rather than program quality and student outcomes.
- Quality assurance processes should focus more on programs and credentials. We need better ways to ensure that what students are learning will help them succeed in life and in the labor market. Employers, industry associations, professional societies, and other key stakeholders outside of higher education need to play a bigger role in ensuring program quality.
- Higher education is not an island; HEA shouldn’t be either. The reauthorization of HEA creates opportunities to better align the law, particularly the rules surrounding access to the federal student aid programs, with other federal education and training programs like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Carl D Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.
- Policy should encourage innovation and experimentation. HEA should provide safe spaces for experimentation with new approaches to instruction, quality assurance and financial aid.
Our coalition is made up of the following organizations:
- Business Roundtable
- Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)
- Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)
- Committee for Economic Development
- HR Policy Association
- Jobs for the Future
- National Association of System Heads
- National Governors Association
- National Skills Coalition
- New America
- Skills for America’s Future
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce