Higher Education Reauthorization: the debate continues

Higher Education Reauthorization: the debate continues

Clara M. Lovett

We were inspired to produce this issue of Change by the lively and sometimes acrimonious debates that arose from the 2004 legislation to reauthorize the 1965 Higher Education Act. The U.S. Congress revisited issues of importance to us all, such as the declining purchasing power of Pell grants and the advantages and disadvantages of direct lending to students. But difficult new issues and questions emerged as well. The most important and controversial of these were about the responsibilities of accrediting agencies to address public concerns about higher education and about the status of and rules governing the for-profit postsecondary sector.

On the legislative side, the tone of the debate is less shrill than it was a year ago. Last year’s issues and concerns have not gone away, but the Congress faces very difficult challenges in other public policy areas. Leaders of the Republican majority, in particular, will come under pressure to deliver at least some results for their second-term president before he becomes a political lame duck. Not coincidentally, the White House has given fairly clear signals that it does not want to expend political capital and staff energies on a prolonged confrontation with higher education’s leaders and their lobbyists.

At the same time, Congressional leaders continue to focus on higher education’s accreditation processes as a source of potentially valuable information for themselves and their constituents. As the articles in this issue demonstrate, there are very different views of why this is happening, what it means for higher education, and what exactly legislators and their constituents can expect to learn from accreditation reports. These leaders also have an on-going desire to ease regulations that affect the for-profit sector and to include it in the universe of what Congress defines as “higher education.”

While we debate these matters, we should not lose sight of the larger stage upon which the reauthorization drama is unfolding. Nor should we fail to consider the historical and cultural context within which the script is being written and the players are interpreting and acting their parts.

The Higher Education Act was originally passed in 1965–so long ago that, from the perspective of both higher education’s leaders and its stakeholders, it might as well have been the Renaissance. The difference between then and now is that there are many more actors in the drama, some of whom did not exist in 1965, and there are many more spectators, some of whom are as opinionated and raucous as the crowds surrounding the stages of Elizabethan England. Indeed, many are making the transition from the role of mere spectators, grateful for good performances and occasionally entitled to gripe about the cost of tickets, to having an active role in the production.

What if, instead of going back to 1965, we go back to a more recent and perhaps more relevant date, the Reauthorization Act of 1992? That helps a bit, because both members of Congress and state legislators at that time were beginning to voice concern about the rising cost of attending college and to ask questions about graduation rates. But even then, the questions were less pointed than they are now. At that time, many legislators assumed that higher education’s leaders would respond to public concerns because it was in their best interest to do so and because it was the right thing to do.

Why, as recently as a decade ago, was there a greater level of trust between policymakers and higher education’s leaders? Why did that trust break down? If we believe that it must be restored, as all the contributors to this issue of Change–despite their differences–do, we need to understand who has had the ear of members of Congress and state legislators then and now.

If you ask legislators now where they get their information about colleges and universities (or any other subject), the most common answer is “I listen to the people in my district.” We know that legislators also listen to other voices, including party leaders, media gurus, campaign contributors, and lobbyists, not all of whom live in their legislative districts. Yet the answer is basically truthful. And it is the key to understanding their declining trust in higher education.

Until about a decade ago, the views of most legislators about higher education reflected both their own experiences, if they were college graduates, and their interactions with college and university leaders in their own district or state. When legislators talked about “public perceptions” or “public concerns” about higher education, they were not referring to a general, and mythical, Public. Their views reflected what they heard from a quite specific “public,” mostly upper-income families who assumed they would send their children to college and expected to have their choices not limited to the least-expensive institutions available close to home.

What did this particular public want from its legislators? Tuition tax credits, merit-based scholarships, larger Pell grants, and low-interest loans. This public did not need help with issues of institutional quality or reputation. It knew how to navigate guides to the best colleges, look up Web sites and promotional brochures, and get the most out of campus visits. It also knew the difference between accredited and non-accredited institutions and degree programs and between nonprofit higher education and what they generally thought of as “trade schools.” More importantly, this public trusted higher education’s own definition of the gold standard for undergraduate education: low faculty/student ratios, well-funded campus services, and well-appointed student housing on traditional nonprofit campuses. All these things were expensive, of course, but worth the price and even the strain on family finances.

Today, this public, while strong, is only a soloist in a choir. Legislators are also hearing from a much larger public of middle-income families with more limited knowledge of higher education but with a strong desire to partake of its benefits and an even stronger desire to see their children graduate from college. This public, too, has bought into higher education’s definition of the gold standard for undergraduate education, although its motivations may be different from those of upper-income families–more focused on the short-term advantages that college graduates enjoy in the marketplace than on the intrinsic value of education or on college as preparation for leadership roles.

This public is deeply anxious; it has accepted the common wisdom that “quality” (which among other things means accredited programs and nonprofit institutions) is by definition expensive, but it doubts its ability to pay for access and academic success. It wants to trust those in charge of the higher education system but finds it increasingly difficult to do so, as the gap between median family income and the cost of attending college grows wider.

Unable or unwilling to help this anxious public through changes in public policy–for example, significant increases in the size of Pell grants–legislators respond with calls for higher education to be accountable for rising costs. Given the decentralized and pluralistic nature of American higher education and the absence of central policy direction, they seek access to the few sources of information that are already available in every region and at most institutions across the country: accreditation reports and data.

Will access to accreditation documents beyond what is already available in print and on Web sites address the anxieties of the large middle-class public about access and affordability? Perhaps not. Sam Hope and Bernard Fryshman caution against the dangers of shining floodlights on the quiet work of volunteer teams that are concerned with student learning and institutional effectiveness, not with the cost of attending college. Yet, as Elise Scanlon argues, accreditation reports can provide useful information about an institution’s published goals for student success and about its progress (or lack thereof) in attaining those goals. And accreditation reports to some extent can help stake-holders understand the cost drivers that are directly related to student learning and those that are not.

Legislators who struggle without much success to reassure this anxious middle-class public are as ill-prepared as higher education’s leaders to address a third public consisting of newcomers to higher education. This last group of stakeholders does not even know the higher education system well enough to trust or distrust its leaders.

The newcomers are adults from low-income families who did not enroll in college right after high school but need to do so now in order to improve their chances of success in the workforce, as well as younger high school graduates who are the first in their families to enroll in college. Particularly if they are from rural areas of the country or from low-income minority communities in urban areas, these students do not know how to navigate college guides and other sources in the public domain. They are also unfamiliar with the traditional gold standard for undergraduate education. If perchance they have heard of it (sometimes from recruiters for elite colleges in search of token diverse students), they do not think it is for them. They need opportunities to attend college, including for-profit institutions that focus on their needs, while working and living at home. For many, flexible schedules, year-round access, and hybrid programs are more critical than low tuition.

Can easier access to accreditation reports make a positive difference for this group? Will they benefit if the line between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors is blurred? Craig Swenson argues that the real dividing line in higher education today is between accredited and non-accredited institutions and programs; history, wealth, and legal status matter less than documented outcomes. If Swenson is right, the importance of the outcome-based processes that most accrediting agencies now champion will grow over time. Those stakeholders least encumbered by preconceived notions and received wisdom about higher education in general and the baccalaureate experience in particular may well be the foremost beneficiaries of the processes themselves and of the openness for which the Higher Learning Commission’s Steven Crow advocates.

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