Congress will soon be turning its attention to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), legislation first enacted in 1965 as part of the Great Society domestic agenda and last reauthorized in 2008. The HEA governs the administration of federal student-aid programs. The reauthorization of the HEA comes at a very critical moment: During the Great Recession, states were forced to reduce spending in nearly all areas, including higher education. While state contributions are recovering, the costs of college tuition and room-and-board are skyrocketing, putting additional pressure on federal support and requiring many students to assume even greater—and often unsustainable—debt burdens through the federal student-loan program. Not surprisingly, some are now questioning the value proposition of a college education.
In light of these circumstances, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Governors’ Council has identified three key objectives for HEA reauthorization:
- Promote effective data-collection and greater transparency
- Incentivize and allow innovative learning models
- Protect the federal-state balance
While serving as governors of our respective states, we all made economic development, job creation, and educational reform major priorities. However, in pursuing these goals, many of us reached the same unfortunate conclusion—that our nation’s educational and workforce systems are failing to adequately prepare and train people for today’s job market. These systems place an inordinate emphasis on the view that everyone should strive to attend a traditional four-year college rather than explore and pursue alternative educational pathways. In devising new educational and workforce systems for our states, many of us found ourselves starting from scratch, trying to link and leverage the resources and requirements of multiple, separate programs and literally hundreds of stakeholders. At the same time, our experience with federal workforce-training programs was less than satisfactory. While providing valuable assistance, many of these federal programs can be bewilderingly complex and inefficient.
The February 2014 Governors’ Council report, Getting Work: How Government Can Do Better Preparing Americans for Today’s Jobs, offered a number of recommendations for improving the current workforce system and ensuring that it is more responsive both to workers seeking their first, next, or better job and to employers, who require an educated and skilled workforce. One of our chief recommendations was to broaden our educational focus beyond four-year college degrees to alternative educational pathways that better prepare individuals for future careers by embedding core employability skills, stackable industry credentials, and workbased learning. We also offered a number of recommendations aimed at improving the process of and providing more coherence to the 47 often-overlapping federal workforce-training programs.
Later in 2014, Congress took several significant steps forward through passage of the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The WIOA furthered the goal of better aligning federal workforce-training programs with the needs of states, employers, and the unemployed. It also consolidated certain programs so that federal dollars can be better used to meet the needs of the unemployed, rather than being spent on administrative expenses.
More work remains. A critical piece of the school-to-work pipeline is higher education. We believe that postsecondary education is the right investment for many young people. Unfortunately, annual tuition increases have made college a less attainable option for a segment of the American population, while other prospective students have insufficient information to make well-informed decisions. More must be done to make college accessible, inform students and parents of their options, and instill transparency and competition in higher education.