Published on 2015/02/19
The EvoLLLution | Three Things to Watch in Higher Ed This Year
Changes driven by the work of the federal government and innovators across the higher education industry will make 2015 an interesting year for the postsecondary space.

2014 was a busy year in higher education policy, and 2015 seems primed to bring even greater attention to the sector. So, what should higher ed leaders and wonks be paying attention to in 2015? Here are three things I’ll be watching:

1. Lamar Alexander’s Priorities

For education wonks, the most lasting effect of the Republican surge will be Senator Lamar Alexander’s rise to the chairmanship of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). It is not an overstatement to say that Alexander has the most accomplished education resume of any public official: governor, college president, Secretary of Education, and longstanding member of the education committee in the Senate. His perspective on higher education policy is sui generis, and is firmly rooted in a limited federal role.

What does Alexander’s position mean for policy? Snarky observers might say “not much;” after all, we have divided government, an administration that seems hell-bent on increasing Washington’s regulatory power, and two top-ranking Republicans that want the opposite (Alexander and his House counterpart, Rep. John Kline).

But agenda-setting is an exceptionally important power in American government, and Alexander now has an opportunity to lay out a new vision for federal policy. What might it look like?

It is important to note something off the bat: Alexander is an avowed fan of our existing system of higher education, often touting it as the best in the world and arguing that we should reform our K-12 system to look more like higher ed (with its voucher-funded market and private providers). As such, expect healthy skepticism of reforms that would fundamentally change the relationships between the federal government, colleges and universities, and accreditation agencies.

We can be relatively certain that an Alexander bill will reflect some of his key priorities: FAFSA simplification and early notification, deregulation of existing colleges and universities, and continued effort to put the brakes on the Obama Administration’s gainful employment and college ratings policies.

For me, the big question mark is Alexander’s position vis-à-vis accreditation reform. Not surprisingly, Alexander seems to prefer the existing system to one where the feds would take on a more muscular accountability role. He was also the most vocal critic of former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ regulatory effort to shape the way accreditors evaluate colleges. It seems safe to say that forcing existing accreditation agencies to change will not be a high priority.

But it is an open question as to whether Alexander would support emerging efforts to develop parallel paths to federal aid that do not rely on accreditation agencies. Senator Mike Lee’s HERO Act, which would devolve power to recognize new accreditors to the states, as well as Marco Rubio’s proposal to create a new accreditor tasked with approving innovative providers, both take this approach. These proposals would leave the existing accreditation system intact (warts and all), but would use a parallel process to lower barriers to entry.

These ideas will get a fair amount of airplay in the coming reauthorization debate, so it will be interesting to watch. From my perspective, a truly deregulatory agenda must go beyond freeing up existing institutions; it must also increase competition by lowering barriers to entry that keep innovative, low-cost challengers out of the market.

2. The Politics Of Obama’s College Ratings

Two Fridays ago, higher ed wonks got an early Christmas present from the Obama Administration: a 17-page framework for the President’s proposed college ratings. As my colleague Kevin James and I profiled earlier late last year, the framework was a mixed bag of marginal improvements and continued adherence to shaky measures and an even shakier theory of change.

It will be interesting to watch the politics of all this, particularly whether ratings proponents are successful in painting any concerns—reasonable or otherwise—as either the self-serving work of the higher education lobby or more spiteful obstructionism from Republicans. Dismissing legitimate concerns now will only cripple the ratings effort. And it is not enough to allay fears by acknowledging that yes, rating colleges is complicated and complex work but that’s why the Department of Education is taking pains to get it right.

For technocrats, “complicated” and “complex” tasks are not impossible for government to accomplish, they simply require enough effort, ingenuity and feedback and voila—problem solved. But that presumes that the government can in fact accomplish the complicated task at hand—measuring the value-added by a college, for instance, something scholars have struggled to do for decades.

For skeptics of federal power, “complicated” and “complex” are watchwords; they should give pause as to whether the federal government is well equipped to do the job in the first place. Voicing that concern isn’t simply an effort to score political points or carry water for the higher ed lobby; it should be an important constraint that shapes any discussion of federal policy. The truth is, a poorly designed, complicated accountability system based on incomplete data can do more harm than good. Look no further than the NCLB-era for evidence.

The question is whether ratings proponents will recognize these constraints and adjust their goals accordingly.

3. Innovators’ Continued Assault on the Skills Gap

Two years ago, swooning journalists told us that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were days away from replacing traditional colleges. That prediction hasn’t worked out so well; MOOCs mostly serve the already-educated, and almost nobody has redeemed a MOOC certificate for credit at a traditional college or university.

While most observers were on the lookout for a frontal assault on the college gates, some innovative providers were outflanking colleges entirely, targeting the space between college and the workplace—the “skills gap”—as their beachhead. MOOC providers like Udacity and Udemy have developed low-cost online courses that provide the skills students need to get jobs in particular sectors but cannot learn on a college campus. These courses are often developed with input from (and at the behest of) employers themselves. Udacity now offers “nanodegrees”—sequences of five online courses designed in concert with employers to prepare students for particular roles. Students pay $200 a month and can move through the coursework at their own pace.

Other innovators in this space look nothing like MOOCs, but instead teach skills via short, immersive in-person courses. A cadre of “career accelerators” like General Assembly, DevBootcamp, HackReactor, and others offer a range of in-person programs and courses tailored to the needs of industry. Students pay out-of-pocket for this training, often shelling out between $10,000 and $15,000 for courses that are no longer than a traditional college semester, indicating significant demand for the kind of short, targeted instruction these firms provide.

There are two big questions here, one short-term and the other long. First, how will regulators treat these new providers? Will they force them to comply with existing, outdated notions of postsecondary education? Doing so could compromise their main strength: an ability to quickly adapt to industry needs by developing new courses and programs on the fly. Forcing career accelerators, for instance, to get every curricular change approved by the state (as could happen in California) would hamstring their comparative advantage.

Second, how long before these skills gap providers start to work backward and offer more of what traditional colleges deliver? The fact is, 90 percent of students go to college to get a better job; whether traditional institutions like it or not, that is their main value proposition. If MOOCs and career accelerators can outperform colleges in preparing students for the workplace, it may only be a matter of time before they start to offer products like general education courses, access to an affinity network, perhaps even a chance to live and work with other learners.

What happens then is anybody’s guess, but it won’t be good for expensive, tuition-dependent colleges.

This article has been adapted from a piece originally published on Forbes.com.

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