The Higher Education Act of 1965 turns 52 years old Wednesday. To call this legislation groundbreaking would only tell part of its story. It did break ground, but the evidence suggests that now we’re stuck in the mud.
In the middle of the last century, the Higher Education Act was billed as a reliable path out of poverty for everyone. However, in the generations that have come along since the original act, the law has resulted in six types of federal student loans, nine repayment plans, eight forgiveness programs, 32 deferment and forbearance options, higher tuition rates, longer completion times, nearly a trillion dollars in student debt, and 6 million unfilled jobs.
If we are going to fill those jobs, and as a result, empower millions of Americans to pursue the lives they want for themselves, we have to rethink and reform — not just reauthorize — the Higher Education Act.
Members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce are committed to those reforms, and we believe a higher education system that serves students, families, and the future of this country can be built across four main pillars.
The first is a sharper focus on promoting innovation, access, and completion.
Well into the 21st century, it is clear that innovation and access work hand-in-hand. Technology has opened doors for people from all walks of life whose circumstances do not allow, or whose career objectives do not warrant, a traditional college experience. We need federal higher education policy, and some of the most rigid and antiquated rules and requirements that come with it, to get out of their way. Not only will this open more doors for students to go into higher education, it will clear away some of the hurdles that keep many from completing their programs.
Next, we have to get serious about simplifying and improving student aid.
The numbers do not lie: The tangled web of aid programs in existence today has produced more debt than success. We can cut through the clutter and confusion students face in most financial aid offices by presenting one grant, one loan, and one work-study program. Similarly, paring down the maze of loan repayment options to a standard 10-year repayment plan and an income-based repayment plan will let students come up with a plan for paying down their debt they know they can actually stick to.
Changes to student aid will also pave the way to better workforce preparation. Reforming federal work-study to allow more students to gain experience at private-sector companies is one more way we can encourage them to consider a variety of career options. Bringing better structure to financial aid and disbursing funds on a pay schedule that looks and feels like a paycheck for work done, not work intended, underscores the idea that education should prepare students for the real world. For nontraditional students, it can be the steady source of support they know they need.
The third pillar for reforming higher education for the future is empowering students and families to make informed decisions.
In much the same way that simplifying student aid helps students decide what their next steps will be, requiring clarity in the information available about postsecondary institutions will empower people to decide what programs will best equip them for what they really want to do with their lives.
No reforms are truly responsible without strong accountability measures in place. The final supporting pillar for the future of higher education policy must be measures to ensure, not just call for, a limited federal role.
For too long, Washington appointees have wielded enormous power in decisions that should never have been theirs to make, and students and institutions have had to find ways to deal with them. Tightening the reins on the U.S. Department of Education makes more room at the table for the states and institutions to better meet the needs of the students they know.
Additionally, reforms to current law shed light on unfunded programs we can and must take this opportunity to repeal, further limiting Washington’s options for meddling where they have proven to be ineffective.
Somewhere along the line, the very words “higher education” became more of a class distinction than a stepping stone to a successful life. Too many students and employers became convinced a two-year degree was respectable, but a four-year degree was truly respected.
So, millions of Americans with God-given talents in technical or artistic fields have found themselves in certificate and credentialing programs that have gone uncelebrated and unrewarded. But for them and their dedication to their trades, the number of unfilled jobs in this country would be millions more.
This is why the reforms in this legislation are coming from a renewed focus on what we value. For us, that’s limitless opportunity for the life a student wants for themselves — not the piece of paper someone else has told them they need.
Fifty-two years is a long time to wait for higher education reforms that point us toward the future, not the past. These reforms will require local, state, federal, financial, and institutional leaders to shift their focus away from outdated concepts of higher education and face head-on an economy that desperately needs a skilled and confident workforce. When we do this, we will truly make history.