Working with a coalition of other national organizations from across the business and workforce development communities, Business Roundtable laid out a series of policy principles for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Other organizations included the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future; Business Roundtable; CAEL; Center for Law and Social Policy; Committee for Economic Development; HR Policy Association; Jobs for the Future; National Association of System Heads; National Governors Association; National Skills Coalition; New America Foundation; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Outcomes are what matter: Student outcomes need to play a stronger role in our quality assurance system and in the rules determining access to public federal higher education funds. As higher education becomes more essential and more expensive, it is imperative that we reduce the financial risk of educational investments for students, employers, and taxpayers. The best way to manage risk is to pay more attention to learning and labor market outcomes. The federal government and its partners in state government and the accrediting community, should ensure that federal higher education funding is linked to the outcomes that matter most to students, employers, and taxpayers: credential attainment, graduation, jobs, earnings, and/or access to more advanced education. Our policies need to reward institutions for helping all students, especially those from historically disadvantaged or underrepresented groups, access and succeed in higher education and transition successfully into the next stage of their personal and professional development. Our policies also need to make it easier for institutions and policymakers to collect and report student outcome data, including employment and earnings.
Federal financial aid policies need to be more flexible: The federal student aid programs authorized under Title IV of HEA do too little to support students who are older, returning to school, or seeking specific skills and credentials for work. While maintaining crucial safeguards against fraud and abuse, eligibility criteria and allowable expenses should be updated to better support students who need to combine work and learning, accelerate their time to degree, and/or attend school part-time and year-round. Creating more opportunities to target grant and loan programs differently, depending on the level of risk or return associated with a particular program, can also provide more safe spaces for innovation in program design.
Higher Education needs to do more to connect learning and work: If students are to graduate ready for the world of work, we need approaches that marry classroom learning with educational opportunities rooted in exposure to real world experience and problem solving. The tools to bridge this divide, such as work-based learning, cooperative education, apprenticeships, and prior learning assessment, are well known but not widely used in postsecondary education. HEA reauthorization should encourage institutions to expand experiential learning opportunities by supporting the use of college work-study and other innovative strategies for fostering stronger linkages between work-based and classroom learning.
Accreditation processes need to be more transparent and rigorous, and protect the interests of students, employers, and taxpayers. Our quality assurance system is fragmented, duplicative, and overly focused on institutional inputs and processes rather than program quality and student outcomes. The lack of transparency and the institutional focus of our accreditation system make it too difficult for stakeholders to identify high-quality programs or mitigate the risks associated with bad programs. The reauthorization of HEA provides an important opportunity to strengthen quality assurance policy and practice.
Quality assurance processes should focus more on programs and credentials: As the labor market grows more competitive and employers look increasingly for specific skills and experience, postsecondary credentials have become more important for securing good jobs. But our quality assurance processes have failed to keep up with the growing demand for and supply of credentials, leaving consumers – both students and employers – with inadequate information about the value, or even composition, of individual credentials. Credentials need to accurately reflect what a student knows and can do. Improved competency and credential validation processes that include employers would go a long way to improve transparency around skill attainment and to ensure that credentials are used for making employment-related decisions. For these reasons and more, greater transparency should be a guiding principle of the reform of accreditation.
Higher education is not an island; HEA shouldn’t be either: The reauthorization of HEA creates opportunities to better align the law, particularly the rules surrounding access to the federal student aid programs, with other federal education and training programs. The recent reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is an example of how policymakers can facilitate coordination and alignment among programs offering complementary services. The upcoming reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act create more opportunities for states and institutions to coordinate federally-funded education and training programs through activities like joint planning, data-sharing, cost-sharing, accountability, and dual enrollment.
Policy should encourage innovation and experimentation: Meeting the education challenges of the future will require new ways of designing, delivering, and assessing teaching and learning. Our public policies should support the scaling of evidence-based strategies as well as innovation in higher education to make it more accessible, affordable, and relevant to students, employers, and communities. New models are emerging inside and outside the existing higher education system that are pushing the boundaries of educational design. These include career pathways and stackable credentials, flexible scheduling, concurrent enrollment models with adult education, and competency-based education. HEA should provide safe spaces for experimentation with new outcome-based quality assurance processes, alternative currency for awarding financial aid, and rigorous evaluation of new approaches.