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Renewing the Promise of the Higher Education Act

Nov 5, 2015

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Higher Education Act, legislation that cemented U.S. colleges and universities as a foundation for individual success, a dynamic economy and national prosperity.

Today, as Congress begins to consider renewing the law, one thing bears keeping in mind: That was 50 years ago! Students come from different walks of life than they did a half-century ago, and they are demanding a different kind of education. The U.S. economy has fundamentally changed, and employers are asking their employees to demonstrate technical skills that were unimaginable in the 1960s.

To help guide the discussion of higher education and workforce readiness in the 21st century, Business Roundtable and the New America Foundation joined 10 other national organizations to release a set of seven principles, “Renewing the Promise of the Higher Education Act.”

As you can see from the list of partners below*, these are groups with often divergent views on public policy. But, as Mary Alice McCarthy of New America put it in a joint briefing to congressional staff Wednesday, “What unites is us is the belief that work and learning must be connected.”

Scott Ralls, the new president of Northern Virginia Community College, described how college students today differ from the nostalgic picture of the past, where recent high-school graduated underwent four years of study at an ivy-covered campus on their way to a degree. (While most young people went directly to the working world.)

Now, more than 40 percent of undergraduates are over the age of 24 and only a quarter of all students attend school full-time, many with children and other jobs. More than 70 percent of undergraduates and graduates now work while attending college.

At Business Roundtable, there is no issue more important than ensuring that we have enough skilled workers to power our economy now and in the future.

Right now, America’s economic future — and individual prosperity — is being hampered by our lacking enough people with the right skills to fill many fast-growing occupations.

A recent survey by Business Roundtable found that 52 percent of CEOs considered the skills shortage to be either “problematic” or “very problematic” in their U.S. operations. It now takes a historically high number of days and weeks to fill many skilled positions.

The current labor supply is tight — unemployment may soon fall below 5 percent. And because the overall pool of available labor is expected to grow at about half the pace of previous decades, economic growth itself is threatened. The implication is clear: We cannot afford to leave anyone untrained and unprepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

Higher education has been the necessary steppingstone to success in life and work. Not just for obtaining a traditional degree, but also for obtaining specific skills for specific jobs.

But for many hoping to upgrade their skills, navigating the path of higher education has become difficult because of cost, lack of information on the value of educational programs, and federal aid policies that do not recognize the needs and limits of the current demographic of learners.

The principles the groups have developed are focused on making the Higher Education Act more efficient, more accountable for the money it invests in people and institutions, and more flexible for its users.

Congress has plenty to do, and in the education world reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is first in the legislative line-up. Still, as lawmakers start work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act – last passed in 2008 – our groups ask them to keep these principles at the forefront.

1. Outcomes are what matter.

2. Federal financial aid policies need to be more flexible.

3. Higher education needs to do more to connect learning and work

4. Accreditation processes need to be more transparent and rigorous.

5. Quality assurance processes should focus more on programs and credentials.

6. Higher education is not an island; the Higher Education Act shouldn’t be either. (This means making sure the law also works with other workforce-oriented statutes, such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act.)

7. Policy should encourage innovation and experimentation.

* The Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future, 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, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


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