Higher Education Policy: What 2015 Means for 2016

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The general higher education policy environment often impacts the interests of EDUCAUSE members. As we consider that environment in 2015 and look ahead to 2016, continued inaction on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act leaves major issues in limbo, such as accreditation reform, federal financial aid access for nontraditional providers, and the role of competency-based education. Whether Congress can act on those concerns in an election year is an open question – they may await a new President and Congress in 2017.

When it comes to federal policy, EDUCAUSE generally focuses on developments that impact the role of technology in higher education. Those developments, however, often bear the marks of the broader higher education policy environment. So, it is worth considering general higher education policy issues and what they may mean for the institutions that EDUCAUSE members serve.

At the EDUCAUSE 2015 Annual Conference, Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President for Government and Public Affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE), discussed how 2015 is notable for Congress’s struggles to get anything accomplished, much less anything related to higher education. In his presentation, "Federal Policy and Higher Education," Hartle noted that reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the nation’s primary law on federal support for and regulation of postsecondary education, remains on hold as other issues, such as the stalled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act due to the legacy of “No Child Left Behind,” slow the legislative process.

(Note: On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA), which serves as the reauthorization of ESEA replacing "No Child Left Behind." This cleared a major barrier to HEA reauthorization, although that process still remains in doubt due primarily to election year politics.)

Hartle discussed how delaying consideration of HEA into 2016, and possibly beyond, means that significant policy conversations will likely remain unresolved for some time. For example, in addition to long-running national interest in higher education affordability and student debt levels, major policy trends with which the higher education community will continue to cope include demands that institutions assume an increasingly parental role for their students, and that accrediting bodies reform their processes to provide greater focus and transparency when it comes to student learning outcomes, especially as they relate to future economic success.

A brief released shortly after EDUCAUSE 2015 by a number of business, government, public policy, and higher education groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the New America Foundation, and the National Association of System Heads, amplifies some of Hartle’s key points. Entitled Renewing The Promise of The Higher Education Act: Seven Principles for Reauthorization, the brief stresses that Congress should refocus accreditation on “the outcomes that matter the most to students, employers, and taxpayers: credential attainment, graduation, jobs, earnings, and/or access to more advanced education,” and that Congress should emphasize this shift by linking institutional eligibility for federal financial aid programs to it (Renewing The Promise, p. 3). From the perspective of the brief’s supporters, this step would help considerably in addressing the issues of affordability and debt:

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 outcomes and labor market outcomes…. Our policies need to reward institutions for helping all students… access and succeed in higher education and transition successfully to the next stage of their personal and professional development. (Renewing The Promise, p. 3)

The brief continues with a call for accreditation processes that are “more transparent and rigorous” and more focused on “programs and credentials,” emphasizing the need for a shift toward competency-based education and experiential learning (Renewing The Promise, pp. 3-4).

Over the last couple of years, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has been doing what it can to advance similar positions, knowing that congressional action on ED’s agenda is a non-starter. At the request of the White House, ED made a major push to establish a college ratings system, the results of which it hoped would ultimately impact institutional participation in federal financial aid programs. Earlier this year, though, ED and the Obama Administration were forced to accept that they didn’t have the data needed to make a ratings system work, and that they couldn’t get such data any time in the near future. Instead, ED released its College Scorecard website, designed to provide students and families with more structured and streamlined access to institutional information, including alumni earnings and student loan repayment rates. As Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, noted in her September 2015 statement on the Scorecard, however:

Given what we believe are significant data limitations, this revamped Scorecard may or may not provide meaningful information to the students and families it was designed to help. For example, it appears the system only provides a single number for an entire institution regardless of whether a student studied chemical engineering or philosophy, and only includes the earnings of federal financial aid recipients.

This is a first step. The department has indicated that it is aware of the system’s data limitations and wants to work with colleges and universities to address them. We welcome that opportunity.

ED has also sought to advance competency-based education, highlighting the provisions of the HEA that allow institutions to qualify programs for federal financial aid access via “direct assessment,” as compared to traditional credit hour models (https://goo.gl/3oqGDO). ED proceeded to back this show of support by launching a direct assessment “experimental sites” project. Using this approach, ED could waive existing financial aid regulations for a limited number of institutions so they could explore how direct assessment degree programs might work. This, in turn, would allow ED to consider the changes it should pursue in federal financial aid regulations as a result (https://goo.gl/43evqQ). This latter point remains significant, given questions raised by the ED inspector general about both ED and accreditor approval of competency-based education programs. In particular, the inspector general has cited regulations requiring “regular and substantive” interaction between faculty and students as indicating that some competency-based education programs constitute correspondence programs, which have more limited access to federal financial aid (https://goo.gl/oTUPaK). This position has drawn a strong negative response from the competency-based education community, with Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, noting this fall that it reflects a very conservative interpretation of the regulations. LeBlanc acknowledges, though, that congressional action, most likely through HEA reauthorization, will be needed to resolve the situation (https://goo.gl/aE2twK), and as previously noted, the timeline for that process remains unclear.

More recently, ED launched another experimental sites program to push the boundaries of online learning models and quality assurance in higher education. Under the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQIP) program, ED will allow traditional institutions and non-traditional learning providers to partner in delivering degree programs that would otherwise not be eligible for federal financial aid. Existing regulations prevent institutions from outsourcing more than 50% of a degree program’s development and delivery to a third-party provider without compromising the program’s federal financial aid status. Institutions participating in EQIP, though, will have the freedom to outsource 100% of a program to a non-traditional provider, assuming the partnership meet certain requirements. Chief among these is that the partners must engage a quality assurance entity (QAE), separate and apart from the institution’s accrediting body, to assess the quality of the learning provided. (The institution’s accrediting agency must still confirm that the program in question meets its standards, but a specific accreditation review of the program is not required.) Identifying and working with a QAE, as described by ED, is an experiment in and of itself. The notice announcing the program indicates that a variety of organizations could conceivably fill the role, as long as they develop and implement quality assurance processes that cover the bases identified by ED, such as criteria addressing student learning outcomes and their assessment.

So, as we look ahead to 2016, colleges and universities face a higher education policy environment that remains on hold pending the launch of HEA reauthorization. We may anticipate, though, that certain issues will play a large role in the process once it does get underway – growing pressure on accreditation for greater emphasis on transparency and student learning/workforce outcomes, significant interest in non-traditional approaches to achieving those outcomes and assessing the quality of the learning that produced them, and the shift toward competencies over credit hours in structuring postsecondary education and the laws and regulations that govern it. And, of course, these concerns will be set against the backdrop of higher education affordability and student debt, with their outcome likely tied to how much they are seen as positively impacting those considerations. With a presidential election year on the horizon and control of the U.S. Senate once more in play, the key question will be whether Congress can make progress on these issues. If not, the higher education community will find itself revisiting them in 2017, along with a new President and Congress.

Jarret Cummings is EDUCAUSE Director of Policy and External Relations.