The senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) is currently gearing up for the 2014 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). They are holding a series of hearings on various topics regarding what should be changed. In September of this year, committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) issued a letter inviting those in higher education to submit their proposals for changes and outlined the agendas for the various hearings. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in the 2008 reauthorization, lawmakers took steps to simplify the process of applying to college, providing information for students to make better borrowing decisions, but failed to address accountability and affordability. However, with President Obama outlining his plan for a college ratings system based on hard data outcomes being the criterion for financial aid moving forward, and budgetary dispute rocking congress in recent years, the debate over reauthorization could prove to be a new political battle ground. The outcome of that battle may produce significant changes in higher education. What does this mean for your college? Higher Ed Hero is exploring that very question.
The goals of the HELP committee are ambitious to be sure. According to the senate website, “The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will provide a unique opportunity for Congress to act to improve college access and affordability, while ensuring that students receive a quality education,” Harkin said. Whereas the initial goal of the HEA was to level the playing field by offering underprivileged students greater access to college, and the funds to pay for it, recent shifts in society have changed the designs behind the bill. With college tuition growing at a rate that exceeds inflation and pay scales, and many recent grads having trouble finding work, people are beginning to question whether going into student debt is a worthwhile investment.
The desire for greater accountability, then, is understandable. While the ratings system proposed by the President is planned to become active in 2015 and is not a part of the reauthorization currently, the attitude behind the system underscores the approach the federal government is taking towards tax-payer funded financial aid programs. The other side of reauthorization is to make college more affordable in the first place (thereby lowering the amount students need to borrow and the government needs to issue). Reigning in tuition costs and putting greater limitations on how much colleges can receive from the government will both be considerations in reauthorization.
While the intent behind the changes the senate committee is seeking to enact is understandable, there are some inherent concerns with its implementation. The most obvious would be, ‘how can you measure college effectiveness?’ The graduation-to-employment success rate would be one metric to use, but that is a better measurement of job placement programs than the quality of education received. Perhaps they could go further and not just look at who is getting jobs, but how effective those graduates are in their positions. This, of course, would not be easy or practical to measure and again, the metrics could be skewed by on-job training, co-worker assistance and other factors besides education. The more examples one tries to come up with for “hard data” pertaining to the quality of education, the more one finds that education simply cannot be measured by statistics.
Up until very recently, the goal of higher education was not simply to produce the next generation of America’s workforce, but to provide personal development of the individual, so that they could apply critical thinking in any pursuit. The heavy focus on the economics of Higher Education, from its upfront cost to back-end payoff in employment, detracts from its true goals. This is why there is difficulty connecting tuition and student debt to student income after graduation.
Despite this difficulty in measurement, the train is rolling to make data-driven measurement the basis for receiving federal funding. This is also coming at a time when many states are divesting in higher education and more and more students are struggling to afford college even after getting loans. This could lead to many colleges and universities struggling to find the funding necessary to keep their doors open and provide a quality education.
Colleges and universities should be preparing for the changes that are coming in reauthorization and beyond. Accountability and affordability are the buzzwords of the day. So, as colleges figure out how to lower costs, they will be tasked with proving the economic effectiveness of the tuition they do charge. HELP is attempting to make the process a dialogue with higher education in the series of hearings they will hold between now and March. They are currently accepting general suggestions at the email address, email@example.com. They will also announce the specific topics of each hearing one week prior so that higher education professionals can submit their specific points accordingly.
Higher Ed Hero will provide continuing coverage of reauthorization. With student debt poised to be the next big budgetary battle, the implications of reauthorization will, in all likelihood, continue to grow.
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