The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 13, 2017

Priorities may change, but the fundamental challenges of federal higher education policy remain the same

October 13, 2017

More than a decade ago, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, led by then–Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, released a lengthy report on the challenges facing the nation’s higher education system and how the federal government might address them. Those challenges included access, affordability, quality, the complexity of the financial aid system, accountability, and innovation.

Eleven years later and with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) looming, those challenges and their corresponding solutions remain remarkably relevant.

“It is not very often in life that you find yourself looking back over a decade grateful to be talking about the same things,” Spellings, now President of the University of North Carolina, said at a convening at the Urban Institute on Tuesday. Spellings and other higher education leaders gathered to discuss the future of federal higher education policy and seek political common ground.

To be sure, higher education has changed since 2006, when the Spellings Commission, as it came to be called, released its report. The for-profit sector has grown, while state budgets for higher education have failed to keep up with rapid increases in enrollment. Public trust in higher education is weaker, and the focus on career readiness is more prevalent.

Some of the commission’s proposals have come to fruition. The plan called for a “consumer-friendly information database on higher education,” and we got the College Scorecard. The commission recommended giving students financial aid estimates earlier, and we now use prior-prior year data to give applicants a clearer picture of what they might need to pay for college. The US Department of Education has also made considerable progress on the recommendation for a simplified student aid application, though there is still more to do.

But many of the policy proposals that dominated Tuesday’s discussion can be traced back to the Spellings Commission’s report, making clear how hard it can be to change higher education at the federal level.

Data and accountability, for instance, were prevailing themes in Tuesday’s conversation, with both Spellings and American Council of Education President Ted Mitchell calling for better and publicly available data on student outcomes.

“There’s no such thing as flawless measurement, of course, but we’re not weighing the idea of flawed measurement against a perfect system; we’re weighing it against the reality in which our current system of higher education is measured by a bogus reputation-ranking system published by a defunct news magazine,” Spellings said, a near echo of a line from the commission’s report, which urged the change “from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance.”

Amy Jones of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce said that some of those accountability efforts need to start with the accreditation process.

“Accreditation shouldn’t be about counting the books in the student library, but about student outcomes,” she said. (Here, the Spellings Commission was prescient as well: “Accreditation agencies should make performance outcomes, including completion rates and student learning, the core of their assessment as a priority over inputs or processes.”)

James Kvaal, former deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, argued that current accreditation standards can stifle innovation, again echoing the commission’s report.

“Accreditation is both too lose and too tight,” Kvaal said. “It keeps colleges form doing things that have the potential to help students learn more at lower cost, and at the same time, it fails to protect students and taxpayers when students aren’t learning and are paying too much.”

Of course, accreditation and innovation are not the biggest issues on the public’s mind. Instead, Jones noted, people are talking about tuition costs, cultural issues like free speech, and whether everyone needs a four-year degree. The prevailing narrative is that there is a student debt crisis and that college might not be worth it. Whether the data bear that out, policymakers will have to balance the public’s priorities with what the research recommends.

“It’s important to think about whether college is the consistent route to the middle class that we tell people it is,” Kvaal said. “We should be listening to the experience of the public and what they’re telling us and making sure we’re more consistently offering students that path.”

To make that path more accessible, Jones suggested considering stackable credits, so students who start college but don’t earn a degree—the group for whom the financial investment in college is least likely pay off—have a credential to show for their work. Kvaal added that we need to examine student loan repayment. After the Obama administration created new income-based repayment plans designed to protect borrowers, there’s no reason for students to be defaulting, yet many still are, he said. Spellings argued that the path starts with states encouraging a college-going culture at the K–12 level.

Whether any of this will happen with HEA reauthorization, and when HEA reauthorization will happen at all, remains to be seen. But it is clear that there are areas of bipartisan agreement, even if they might be the same solutions higher education was talking about a decade ago.

"Higher education is without a doubt one of our nation's greatest success stories, but it needs continuous improvement to stay that way," Spellings said.

Margaret Spellings, Ted Mitchell, and Sandy Baum speak on a panel about the future of federal higher education policy at the Urban Institute on October 10, 2017. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute.


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