Like many student affairs administrators, my job requires me to anticipate future trends in student affairs and the changing political landscape locally and nationally. As such, environmental scanning has become a way of life for many of us. Planning 18-to-24 months out for projects is not uncommon; bridging the mindset of day-to-day tasks and long-range planning has become second nature. So, peering ahead to the expiration of the Higher Education Act (HEA) at the end of the month, with Congress hosting its share of meetings and hearings, yet gaining little traction on reauthorization should make me feel a bit worried. Or should it?
Outside of the Washington, D.C. beltway, very few people have been talking about the reauthorization of the HEA. No one has mentioned it at a staff meeting on my campus and there was no reference of it at the recent NASPA IV-East conference. I don’t know if it is due to the last reauthorization being passed five years later than the statutory deadline and people don’t believe significant progress will be made on the reauthorization in the near future, or if people just don’t care. But, what I do know is the Act's renewal this time seems much less significant than it once was because there are continual changes happening in D.C. with regard to higher education policy; and, I know we should be talking about the HEA, but we aren’t.
Prior to the actual reauthorization in 2008, a substantial amount of changes were made to student-aid policy through The Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, and the Ensuring Continuing Access to Student Loans Act of 2008. Each of these attempted to streamline federal student financial aid outside of the provisions in the HEA. So, when the actual reauthorization was passed in 2008, much of the air was already let out the sails around federal student loan programs.
I will say the 2008 reauthorization did require institutions to produce many important reports for students, such as the Fire Safety Act. All kidding aside, if this new report requires institutions review policies and procedures around fire safety and it saves even one life, it was worth it. There were significant features in the 2008 reauthorization like updates to the Pell program, required publishing of International Standard Book Number (ISBN), and assistance for veterans. Further, families and students have access to more information about college costs than ever before.
The Net Price Calculator seems to be one of the most sought out pages on our institution’s website and we know families and students are concerned about cost. But, the College Navigator website, another requirement under the reauthorization, appears to be awkward for families to use, if they use it at all. It doesn’t provide enough context for most, especially first-generation families who may not know what is significant to review and compare on the site. If families believe retention and graduation rates are important in choosing an institution, how meaningful are 1%, 5% or even 10% differences between institutions? Is the academic quality of one institution better for having a 76% retention rate compared to one with a 75% rate? Context is important and the reauthorization didn’t provide it.
Similar to the 2008 reauthorization, important changes to higher education policy are being constructed outside the reauthorization process. The “Dear Colleague” Letter issued by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in April, 2011 provided the most substantive guidance regarding sexual harassment in ten years. The rulemaking and hearings around several topics including state authorization for distance education programs, state authorization for foreign locations of domestic institutions, gainful employment, and campus safety and security reporting, to name just a few, have taken place or will continue later this academic year.
The lack of drama now regarding the impact of sequestration on higher education and anticipated plans by the Obama administration to develop and implement a ratings system suggests that the actual reauthorization may be even less significant as changes to higher educational policy will continue to come outside the traditional renewal process.
What will the 2014 HEA ultimately contain, if there is one? I don’t know. I believe there will be significant provisions in the Act that will require student affairs administrators to remain attentive. Accountability and access will remain at the forefront, as part of the initial intent of Higher Education Act of 1965. Concerns around accreditation will be hotly debated with discussion around a federal system being considered. Some have suggested this reauthorization may overhaul and streamline the financial aid system, providing a single grant program, a single loan program, and a work-study opportunity to students with financial need. Based on 2007, I am not so sure. It will be interesting to watch how it all works out.
The House and Senate will each have committee meetings and will host public hearings about the reauthorization. We’ll need to work within our institutions to clarify our own institutional priorities. We also need to work with NASPA on our public policy agenda. Should we be worried? Possibly. But here are three ways to consider as you stay abreast of the forthcoming policy discussions and engage in public policy advocacy:
Should we be engaged in the process? Absolutely! We should be worried if we are not engaged!