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Federal Higher Education Policy: Momentum or Collision Course? | Commentary

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. A bill authored by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., for example, would dramatically simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, making it easier for millions of current and prospective college students to fill out the required financial aid form and receive tuition support. It’s especially significant that Alexander, who leads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has made the bill a priority. While the specific details need further discussion, making student aid eligibility more understandable for students is a necessary component of a student-centered system, and simplifying the FAFSA is a common sense, good start.

So, too, is the push to measure — and pay for — students’ progress based on what they’ve learned, rather than the number of credit hours they’ve earned. Last summer a bill that passed the House unanimously would have provided pathways for students to use their federal aid dollars at colleges that incorporate this competency-based approach, thereby making it easier for students with some prior learning or work experience to earn their degrees. Similar legislation had bipartisan support in the Senate last Congress.

If such a bill does pass, it would help propel the growth of other innovative models for promoting and measuring student readiness. The administration is already moving forward with experiments at dozens of colleges and universities to test this concept.

Congress also has an opportunity to build upon existing bipartisan momentum to advance workforce education. Last year the House and Senate reauthorized the Workforce Investment Act, and Obama signed it into law. This could create a runway for more ambitious initiatives to give students the credentials they need to succeed in the 21st Century workplace, from certificate programs run by community colleges to training programs that companies conduct to prepare prospective hires for specific jobs.

While smaller in scale than the sweeping education-overhaul proposals that tend to grab headlines, these policy changes would remind the public — and our elected officials — that bipartisan cooperation on higher education is possible. And that would bring us a big step closer to the higher-education revamp that is needed to give every American a fair opportunity at success and our nation the talent it needs to thrive in the 21st Century.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans’ college attainment. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.

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