The last time Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act was in 2008.  George W. Bush was president and Margaret Spellings was secretary of Education.

The world has changed dramatically during this decade. Just over 1.3 million Americans were experimenting with Smart Phones then. Today, over 2.6 billion are in use.  Snapchat didn’t even exist. GPS was a printed Google map, not a piece of technology on your car or phone. TV Guide and Blockbuster were our foundations for video entertainment!

And this has really changed the role – and impact – of federal financial aid. The 31.5 million student loan borrowers in 2008 has grown to 45 million representing 70 percent of all college students! The average debt/student has increased from $20,350 to $27,975 during this decade – a 37 percent increase.  The result?  There is over $1.4 trillion in national student loan debt.

Today, college is not a luxury. It is an essential step towards one’s career and their professional success in life. As a result, our student population is much more diverse in age, race and ethnicity and gender. Yet the old 2008 Higher Education Act still calculates college outcomes based upon only first-time, full-time students transitioning from high school directly into college with no job; no spouse; and no dependents.

America is properly focused on a growing income equality creating one nation for the very rich (and their children); and one nation for the rest.  It has created both the Trump voter and the Bernie Sanders voters at opposite ends of the political spectrum.  The issue prompted a special series in The Washington Post where they invited 12 experts to share their recommendations for how we might reduce inequality in America.  Guess what?  Not one of the 12 suggested that access to postsecondary education was a solution.

The BLS Current Population Survey has released income data by level of education for 2017. The average Bachelor degree income was $60,996. An Associate Degree’s income was $43,472.  A high school diploma earned $37,024.

Education outcomes are defining income inequality. Not everyone needs to graduate from a 4-year college because not every occupation requires that level of education.  But, if one compares the difference in annual earnings for an AA degree and a high school diploma you will note that over 40 years of work the AA degree earns $257,920 more.  And if you take this one step lower to the “College but no degree” which includes certificate and diploma programs, one can earn $128,960 more over 40 years of work than a high school graduate.  Reducing income inequality begins by recognizing that some level of postsecondary education is quickly becoming a necessity.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has introduced a bold – if controversial – proposal for reauthorization titled “THE PROSPER ACT.” Most of the controversy in her bill reflects the fact she was required to craft a proposal with dramatically lower budget numbers than the recent two-year budget agreement provides.  Using the new budget numbers, one could quickly restore in-school interest subsidies and other provisions that result in some needed reforms in ways acceptable to most. She should be commended for modernization of the Act, including short-term Pell grants; Competencies; and Apprenticeships.  Such proposals recognize that today, the Higher Education Act is America’s workforce investment strategy.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) (the chair and ranking member) of the Senate’s Education Committee have been engaged in talks about a possible bipartisan proposal.  Most observers suggest that current politics in Washington will prevent any agreement; effectively killing any chance for reauthorization this year.

But it shouldn’t.  The economic and demographic realities of today demand that both political parties find a way to modernize a current Higher Education Act created in a different time, for a very different student body, and a very different economy.

When I was a member of Congress, the incentive to enact a bipartisan Higher Education Act was incredible.  Every member could return to their state or district with a new program providing a bridge for every American family to the middle class. Today, higher education is more than a bridge; it is an essential requirement to real work, real wages and participation in the American Dream.  This is the year to modernize our nation’s higher education policy.  Let’s just do it!