More Than Grants: The Role of the Federal Government in Higher Ed Reform

August 28, 2015

Public higher education today is facing a great deal of internal and external scrutiny, from students, employers, observers and government bodies alike. Through a number of policy changes and suggestions, the federal government is starting to take a leading role in the reform of colleges and universities across the United States, focusing on improving access, completion and long-term success of graduates. In this interview, Kermit Kaleba discusses some of the critical reforms needed to create a 21st-century model of higher education and shares his thoughts on the role the federal government needs to play in this reimagining.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role should the federal government have in the reform and administration of public higher education?

Kermit Kabela (KK): It’s important to remember that postsecondary education is a partnership between federal, state and local governments, individual institutions and a number of other stakeholders. Each has an important part to play in the conversation. The federal government has played a role in promoting better access to postsecondary education for low-income and non-traditional students through financial aid and other policies. It’s important to continue to build on those efforts and sustain funding for those programs. The federal government can also support efforts to enhance student success and completion. Just because you can get access to post-secondary education doesn’t mean that you have what you need to succeed. The federal government has invested in a lot of innovative strategies like contextualized learning models and competency-based education. There is a role for the government to continue to play in supporting strategies that help support student success.

They can also support efforts to better measure performance and outcome data looking at the credentials that are earned and the labor market for individuals that go through post-secondary education. The other thing they can do well is help promote linkages between the higher education systems and other stakeholders particularly with employers and with the public workforce system.

Evo: How active has the current administration been in transforming American postsecondary education?

KK: They’ve been very active in trying to reshape the conversation around higher education. They’ve done a lot around the idea of increasing affordability. They’ve also put a lot of emphasis on data quality and program quality. They’ve invested in longitudinal data systems to measure attainment. The biggest thing they’ve really done is shifted our perception of post-secondary education. Before this administration, most of the focus was on expanding access to four-year college degrees and beyond. While that’s an important part of our educational and economic strategy, it’s important to remember that many individuals are pursuing associate’s degrees or short-term occupational credentials that have value in the labor market.

The primary federal vehicle for changing higher education policy is the Higher Education Act (HEA) and that law has not been reauthorized since 2008, before this administration. While the administration has done a lot to shape the conversations, moving forward, they haven’t been as successful as they would like to be in terms of actual policy change and reauthorization of HEA. Congress is going to potentially be looking at reauthorization this fall and into the winter. We hope that Congress will look at some of the proposals that have been raised around expanding access to short-term training, increasing data, making sure that we’re moving towards a more job-driven higher education system.

Evo: Why is it so important that Congress moves to reauthorize the HEA?

KK: It’s the primary federal law that dictates higher education policy. That’s the law that covers federal financial aid, it’s a significant source of institutional support, it sets the framework of how we thinking about and define higher education in this country. A lot of the structure of higher education is driven by federal policy. We know that higher education policy hasn’t caught up in many cases with the realities of today’s labor market and the reality of today’s students. It’s important for us to update the law to make sure it is reflective of the labor market demands of the 21st century.

Evo: What do you think are some of the most critical issues related to higher education that the candidates pursuing their party’s nomination should be talking about?

KK: As we move forward, there’s three big-picture items that we think are important as part of the policy discussion. The first thing we would want to see is an increased focus on job-driven training. What we mean by that is expanding access to student aid to help support shorter-term occupational training at postsecondary institutions. We want to make sure that student financial aid is available for students who are pursuing short-term occupational or non-sequential credentials. We would want to see a more flexible financial aid that reflects the way people are actually working and consuming education.

We’d also want to see stronger partnerships with local and regional industries to make sure that students who are enrolling in programs are getting the skills and credentials they need to transition into the labor market. One of the best ways you can do that is to develop partnerships with employers who are in that industry, both to identify what curricula and skills are necessary but also to make sure that there is potentially a job at the end of the course.

Moving forward, the policy discussion should have stronger emphasis on data alignment and postsecondary outcomes. Policy makers, educators and students, they all need meaningful data on the quality of educational investments and whether these investments will lead to the kind of employment and earning outcomes they want. Not every student enrolls because they’re looking for a job right away, but many do and we need better data to tell us whether those programs are helping people get the employment outcomes that we’re trying to achieve.

We also want to make sure that we’re aligning data across various systems—making sure we can track data across K-12, across postsecondary and across workforce development.

We’d also like to see a continued emphasis on supporting student success. We want to continue to expand access into education training to ensure that there are no barriers for people enrolling in higher education but we also want to recognize that many of today’s students are working adults or other kinds of non-traditional students.

We need to make sure we’re providing both the direction and institutional support to make sure those strategies are being built but also making sure that the financial aid system helps support participation in those programs.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the role the federal government can play in helping to transform and redefine higher education?

KK: In today’s’ economy, postsecondary education and training is increasingly important for access to middle-skill jobs—ones that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four year degree. Right now these are the largest segment of the labor market. Our federal policy needs to reflect the fact that postsecondary education isn’t the only pathway into a middle-skill, middle-class job but it is one of the primary pathways into one of the jobs. It’s important for us to not be caught in a 19th or 20th century model of higher education. We need to start thinking about the 21st century model of postsecondary education.

This interview was edited for length.