Higher Education Policy: Left, Right, and Center

March 17, 2015

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Christopher Nellum, senior policy research analyst for ACE’s Center for Policy and Research Strategy, writes on the Tuesday morning Annual Meeting session that looked at higher education policy across the ideological spectrum.

On the final day of the Annual Meeting, an early morning session entitled “Higher Education Policy: Left, Right, and Center” provided attendees with insight into the current issues and policy discussions across the ideological spectrum helping to shape institutional and federal higher education policy.

The panel, moderated by ACE’s Louis Soares, included Andrew P. Kelly (American Enterprise Institute); Michelle Asha Cooper (Institute for Higher Education Policy); and Elizabeth Baylor (Center for American Progress), also served as a glimpse as to what major policy items might drive the conversation as we approach Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization.

Among the many topics discussed, all of the panelists agreed that the reform movement in higher education is in its infancy, with major debates on at least two major issues:

1. Data. The panelists considered whether higher education organizations and associations believe we need better data to understand student outcomes. Michelle Cooper raised the benefits of collecting better data (e.g., institutional improvement and bolstering program integrity), while others discussed a student unit record (SUR) system as a way of improving insight about student access, persistence, and outcomes.

Other ideas, given the current ban on SUR, included leveraging the data currently available such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data, and the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS).

Cooper reminded all in attendance that no matter the data source or structure, “data doesn’t make decisions, people do”, while Andrew Kelly and Elizabeth Baylor questioned the implications of collecting more data.

Kelly also highlighted that the higher education community has failed to explain for what more and better data would be used.

2. Cost & affordability. College affordability is now a primetime issue with families and students across the United States concerned with understanding the “true” cost of attending college and whether they have the necessary resources. This reality, coupled with declining state financing of postsecondary education, creates a space for policymakers and advocates to consider a range of issues on this topic.

Kelly reflected on the toxic environment that frames discussion about student debt. He stressed that not all debt is created equal and argued the effect of additional dollars of debt depends on whether a student completed or attended graduate school.

Kelly offered, for example, that those with the highest debt are usually doing better because most went to graduate or professional school and are better off financially, while those with the lowest debt are struggling to repay for a variety of reasons.

Baylor and Cooper weighed in by reminding the audience that there remains real anxiety about the cost of higher education, particularly for the neediest students.

They each emphasized that the financial aid system is not the only problem and that state financing of higher education plays a major role because institutions, rather than looking for ways to be efficient when faced with budget shortfalls, simply pass the costs on to families and students.

In addition to the wonderful insight about pressing issues facing institutional leaders and policy groups was the suggestion that there is bipartisan interest in student debt, cost and affordability, and public financing of postsecondary education, and plenty of opportunity for bipartisan support and cooperation on these issues.

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