Why Rebooting Higher Education Policy Could Strengthen Our Nation's Economic Future

Much is riding on the outcome of a months-long Congressional debate over re-authorization of the Higher Education Act, the sweeping law that governs colleges and universities.
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Much is riding on the outcome of a months-long Congressional debate over re-authorization of the Higher Education Act, the sweeping law that governs colleges and universities. The law has been in place for five decades and through many rounds of re-authorization, but this will be its most consequential to date. Our ability to make the right changes will determine not only the future of millions of students, but also America's chances of continuing to prosper and compete on a global scale.

The reason is, simply put, talent. The U.S thrived in the 20th century because we had a critical mass of people with the skills and knowledge to meet the economic demands of that era. Today, in contrast, we're falling behind.

Labor economists predict that two-thirds of jobs will require postsecondary degrees or credentials by 2020, and currently only 40 percent of Americans have reached that level of educational attainment. What's more, we lag behind 10 other developed nations in postsecondary attainment rates, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

To address that gap, we must ensure all Americans have access and opportunities to obtain an education beyond high school, and that's especially important for a growing college majority that is increasingly older, financially independent, and balancing higher education with work, parenting and other demands.

Meeting the needs of these students requires more than tweaks to the system; it demands a redesign of higher education as we know it. The Higher Education Act presents a prime opportunity to create the policy conditions that allow innovation to flourish and make such a redesign possible.

Congressional leaders can make significant progress if they focus on three key steps, which I shared in testimony today before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. These would encourage innovation in higher education and create a system that's centered on students:

  • Build clear pathways to high-quality degrees and credentials. Today there's an array of higher education pathways, such as skills-based certification programs, four-year degree programs and work-based apprenticeships. We need a system that recognizes all of these pathways and enables existing providers to develop more high-quality, low-cost models - something that changes in financial aid policy could advance. We also need to reduce barriers to innovation so that new models that meet the increasingly diverse needs of today's students can emerge.
  • Focus on educational quality. Federal funds should be directed to programs that best serve their students, including low-income, minority and first-generation students, as well as working adults. Congressional leaders should make it a priority to carefully measure the most important metric - student learning - rather than just focusing on inputs such as time spent in the classroom. And establishing models to assess quality for higher education providers beyond the brick-and-mortar, four-year universities should be a key emphasis.
  • Address rising costs. Approaches such as competency-based education, online and accelerated programs should be encouraged and supported. All of these models have proven that higher education can be delivered more efficiently, and they've created healthy competition to improve and fuel a strong higher education marketplace. Key to this effort also is making costs transparent and understandable for students and parents, and making financial aid easily navigable and accessible to those who need it.

None of these ideas is a silver bullet; advancing systemic change in higher education requires pursuing all of them in concert. But together, they represent a course to help increase educational outcomes for millions of Americans, and thereby grow our overall attainment rate and better position our country for 21st century success.

There is a lot depending on our ability to improve and redesign higher education to better meet the needs of today's students. The re-authorization of the higher education act gives us a prime opportunity to establish the right landscape for doing that. Let's not let it go to waste.

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