When Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. was named president of Purdue University in 2013, I sent him an email saying, “Welcome to the revolution!” My email explained that higher education is changing in terms of whom we teach, what we teach, when we teach, and where we teach it. Last year, speaking on a panel at a higher-education symposium in my role as president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, I said that higher education had transformed itself, but I went on to suggest that the failure of the federal government to update its policies — especially the Higher Education Act — limited the ability of all educators to fully seize this moment.
This year will determine whether public policy can respond to these changes in ways that stand the test of time. For many of us, the Department of Education’s current efforts to revise both the gainful-employment and borrower-defense regulations provide a real opportunity for civic leadership by the government and by all of us affected by such rules.
I have lived through the regulations advanced by the previous federal administration, and, despite my best efforts to encourage and promote a balanced approach, the results were an ideological attack against those of us engaged in the delivery of postsecondary career education, and especially those of us connected to multigeneration, family-owned institutions. According to my organization’s analysis, since 2010 almost 2,000 for-profit institutions across the country have closed, resulting in more than 1.3 million students losing access to the education they need to move into the middle class.
It did not need to be this way. Virtually everyone in higher education believes that any student who is the victim of academic fraud should be able to seek relief, and that students should be able to find gainful employment in their area of academic study. Most of us would even suggest that some common-outcome metrics for all programs at all colleges would be a service to prospective students.Today, the negotiators engaged in seeking consensus on these issues have an opportunity to advance good public policy. The temptation, however, is for one side to resist any change and the other side to advocate for a complete reversal. Such actions reflect today’s polarization of the body politic, but they do nothing to advance good public policy.
No sector has been harmed more by these awful rules than career colleges and universities; however, we resist such extremes. Rather, we advocate for a borrower-defense rule that provides appropriate due-process protections for both students and colleges. We also seek the development of a common set of outcome metrics for all programs at all colleges in ways that serve all students, providing them with the tools to make the right choices for their future.
The Department of Education has the opportunity to advance new proposed regulations that provide equity, fairness, and balance in ways that can stand the test of time regardless of which political party is in power. But perhaps even more important than the outcome of these negotiated rules is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
To her credit, Virginia Foxx, chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has advanced a bold proposal to enact a very different set of laws governing higher education. One can disagree with some of the details, but it would be very difficult to maintain that the status quo — reauthorized a decade ago — serves us better than real reform.
Some basic themes should unite us all — Republicans, Democrats, and every sector of higher education. We need simplification and improvement in federal student-aid programs, including moving toward a system with one grant and one loan. We also should modernize the delivery of funds to students in ways similar to the department’s pilot program, which will use a prepaid card to deliver aid directly to students.
We should also recognize the changing role of higher education in today’s economy. With most jobs now requiring some level of postsecondary education, the Higher Education Act has become the nation’s work-force investment strategy. Reauthorization must reflect this change, as a growing number of adults seek postsecondary education in less-than-four-year programs.
- short-term Pell Grants.
- apprenticeship programs connected to academic credits.
- competency-based programs that recognize what students know.
- accelerated academic programs that help move students into the workplace.
And we must recognize the growing employer demand for occupational credentials, not just academic degrees.
A modern Higher Education Act could provide all of higher education with the foundation for a new era of service to all students in all sectors. We must spend more time enhancing the quality and quantity of educational delivery and less time dealing with the latest regulatory initiatives. Stability in public policy can provide the environment for a greater focus on increasing the number of students who move from the classroom to the workplace.
Higher-education institutions have much more in common than might be reflected in their differences in students, academics, and cultures. Andrew Carnegie said: “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision.” This is the year for all of higher education to come together to advance legislative policy and a set of regulations that can stand the test of time.