Federal Higher Education Policy: Momentum or Collision Course?

Roll Call, February 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

Federal Higher Education Policy: Momentum or Collision Course?


President Barack Obama's proposals on higher education announced at the State of the Union have generated a continuum of reactions - ranging from positive to derisive - from lawmakers and the higher education policy community. Successful passage of these ideas will likely face long odds following the release of the president's budget next week. But even if the president's sweeping plans don't make it through, the door is open for real, bipartisan progress that can serve as important first steps toward a much-needed overhaul of our federal strategies that help students gain the talent they need to prosper economically and socially in the 21st century.

And let's be clear: it's critical that congressional leaders capitalize on this opportunity for momentum. As Obama pointed out in his speech, more than two-thirds of all U.S. jobs require some higher education. Yet today fewer than 40 percent of Americans have such credentials.

Steadily rising wages for those with college degrees show that employers are willing to pay a premium for the talent they need to succeed. Yet with college prices rising at a pace greater than inflation for nearly three decades, the prospect of college is growing dimmer for too many students. While the problems of increasing college attainment and improving affordability are not solely the responsibility of the federal government, federal action is needed to respond to national priorities and meet the talent needs of our increasingly diverse and mobile population.

The president's proposal to make community college tuition-free and expand certain tax credits have generated a much-needed national dialogue about the changes needed to reshape higher education into a student-centered system. Even before these announcements, though, leaders in both houses of Congress vowed to reauthorize the central piece of federal higher education legislation, the Higher Education Act, in the coming year. Getting to that point will not happen overnight, given the substantially different priorities that have characterized the higher education policy discussions in recent years.

So does the gulf between the priorities that Congress has defined and the ambitious ideas the president has offered suggest that the two are on a collision course? Not necessarily. 2015 offers the opportunity for passage of a handful of more modest federal policy changes, including regulatory reforms and legislative proposals. These would essentially be confidence-building steps that could help improve students' postsecondary outcomes and set the stage for more comprehensive action in the years ahead.

Several concrete ideas have emerged that would build that confidence. …

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