Three Higher Education Proposals to Watch from the White House

Over the last three weeks, Washington has seen a flurry of activity around federal higher education policy. Updates to the Negotiated Rulemaking schedule will extend the negotiations on higher education accreditation and innovation into early April. The House Committee on Education & Labor held their first hearing on college costs, with four more hearings to come this spring. And, of course, everyone has (rightfully) become an expert on college admissions following the nation’s most shocking and maddening college entrance scandal.

Your eyes may also be on this week’s Executive Order, which calls on universities to adhere to free speech standards in exchange for federal research dollars, publish program-level data in the College Scorecard, and directs the U.S. Department of Education to share recommendations about how colleges and universities can share risk in the provision of federal aid dollars.

But even before he signed the Executive Order, President Trump released his proposals to reform the federal Higher Education Act. Predictable themes around affordability, accountability and innovation dominated the headlines, but buried in the text are a three key proposals to watch closely.

1. President Trump is proposing to redraw the map for accreditors.Currently, accrediting agencies—the “gatekeepers” of federal financial aid and the entities responsible for “quality” across our higher education institutions—are designated by their national, regional or specialized functions. President Trump has called on Congress to “eliminate the archaic distinction between accreditors with a geographic scope and those with a mission-based scope.” Arguing that educational institutions operate by mission and not geography, he asserts that the agencies that review and accredit them should operate in a similar fashion.

There is some sound reasoning behind that proposal. But dismantling the current structure doesn’t address the decades-old concern that agencies spend too much time on inputs (such as faculty degrees and governance structures) over outcomes (like graduation rates and job placement rates). While the proposal asserts the change will result in a more market-driven system, it does not address the fundamental issue that accreditors should be geographically responsible to approve programs that reflect the unique demands of local labor markets and the priorities and preferences of education consumers.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup and Strada Education Network, when it comes to interest in education and training, not all states are equally enthused. Interest level in education and training ranges from a high of 67 percent in the District of Columbia to a low of 28 percent in South Dakota. Without further details, I fear the proposal puts us one step closer to a single, national accrediting agency for higher education.

2. President Trump calls on Congress to reform the Federal Work Study program and ensure that the federal aid program “better aligns to workforce and career-oriented opportunities for low-income undergraduate students.” For decades, the work-study program has provided students with subsidized campus employment as a means to financial aid. However, many of the on-campus jobs have had little connection to a students’ program of study or career aspirations.

There are efforts today to connect students’ on-campus work experiences to future employment opportunities that are worth a look. Through their contact center model, the nonprofit Education At Work is connecting students with on-campus employment opportunities that allows them to graduate with less debt and valuable workplace skills. To further illustrate the opportunities that exist in on-campus student employment, NASPA, an association for student affairs professionals in higher education, published a landscape report which recognized that institutions make significant, on-going investments in campus jobs, and have incredible opportunities to maximize the impact of those programs to focus on student learning, engagement and career readiness.

This is perhaps the most common sense proposal coming from the White House. It makes good use of taxpayer dollars and capitalizes upon the opportunity for student engagement, improved retention and completion and financial aid support.

3. As previous administrations, and decades of legislative proposals, have called for, President Trump is pushing to simplify the awarding of financial aid by facilitating a data match between the Department of Education and the Department of Treasury (through the IRS). The data match—with the consent of the student—would allow income tax data to be used “in the application, renewal and administration of Federal student aid programs and income-driven repayment plans.” What better way to ensure that students have up-to-date information on their eligibility, while also ensuring that the government can conduct real-time analysis on the costs of these federal programs?

As a Congressional staffer in the early 2000’s, I met with countless members of Congress and Administration officials on this very idea. The idea had bipartisan support then. It has bipartisan support now. Imagine where we would be if the “IRS Data Match” had been fully realized almost two decades ago. The time is now to enact this proposal.

Given that Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has committed to deliver a Higher Education Act reauthorization by the Christmas holidays, the next nine months are certain keep higher education leaders, policy wonks and pundits quite busy.

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