Putting Today’s Students Back at the Center of Federal Policies
In 1965, when our nation’s keystone higher education law, the Higher Education Act, was first passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, the American student population looked very different than it does today. Back then, most students graduated high school and went straight to a four-year college or trade school. Today, higher education students and their pathways are vastly more complex: 38 percent of students are older than age 25, 58 percent are working, 26 percent are parents, 40 percent study part-time, and just 13 percent live on campus.
Most of our federal policies are vestiges of President Johnson’s America. Today, roadblocks stand between adult learner access and attainment, precisely because the system we have was built before these students were a prevalent part of the student population. To address these roadblocks and better serve adult learners, a significant shift in higher education systems and policies is sorely needed. A daunting—but not impossible—task. American higher education has a celebrated history of reinventing itself, including with the expansion of tuition benefits to World War II veterans through the G.I. Bill and the creation of the Pell Grant, enabling millions of students to attend college as the first in their family to do so.
Another shift to better serve adult learners may be in the making. It has been 10 years since the Higher Education Act was last reauthorized, and policymakers now have the opportunity to update the law so that it can give adult learners the full access and support they deserve. Here’s how they can accomplish that goal.
Improve student data and information to accurately reflect today’s students, including adults and part-time learners
The foundation of better serving all students is to count all students. Higher education leaders and policymakers currently rely on a fragmented and incomplete set of data systems to piece together information about critical student outcomes, like graduation rates. Adults and many other learners lack clear and easily-understandable information on which programs offer the best value for students like them.
At the same time, progress is happening. Beginning in September 2017, the Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) database now counts part-time students, 40 percent of today’s student body, for some information collection. There is still a ways to go, however, before all students can answer the question: how do students who are like me fare at this program?
With stronger data and more insights into student success, policymakers and institutions would be able to make better-informed choices about where to devote scarce resources, and students would finally have the transparency and clarity they deserve about which programs are best equipped to help them achieve their goals.
Overhaul the federal financial aid process with adults in mind
By and large, the bulk of federal policies and programs devoted to supporting higher education are still organized and disbursed with traditional learners in mind. To better serve adults, policymakers should re-examine some of the trivial barriers to financial assistance that adult learners experience, such as penalties and red tape they may face because of past financial and academic experience. Additionally, working adults should be able to use Pell Grants for a broader range of programs that lead to high-quality degrees or credentials.
Count all learning, wherever it is happening
Students are now accumulating high-quality, transferable credentials and learning experiences through a broader range of sources. Today’s students need a system that counts high-quality learning whether it’s happening in a traditional classroom, a competency-based online program, an employer-connected bootcamp or a single-credit course an adult learner needs to retrain for and land a higher-paying job.
Hold institutions accountable for student outcomes
Today, our system of postsecondary learning is governed by accountability rules and an accreditation process that prizes compliance checklists over whether an institution or provider actually delivers results for students. We need to redesign the way we finance institutions and hold them accountable by shifting to robust accountability standards focused on outcomes. Adult learners are returning to higher education with concrete goals and career aspirations. Simply said, they expect results. It’s time for us to evaluate and reward providers based on how effective they are in helping students obtain valuable credentials that lead to strong outcomes.
Our Students Deserve Change
None of this will be easy. Technological, economic and demographic changes are happening at breakneck speed, continuously raising the stakes for our postsecondary system. But this is a challenge we can’t shirk.
The higher education sector is not only ready for these reforms, our students deserve them. Today’s students deserve a new and revised higher education law that puts students and quality back at the center. It is time once again for the nation’s policymakers to fundamentally rethink the way we organize, finance and support higher learning. Through bipartisan cooperation, a hard-nosed look at the research, and an unwavering focus on students, that goal is well within reach.
Author Perspective: Association