At an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on January 22nd, United States Congressman John Kline, Chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, touched on legislative priorities for education in the 114th Congress. Much of the conversation focused on the push to re-authorize No Child Left Behind, which the congressman stated will take priority on the House and Senate’s education agenda this year. Chairman Kline also shared his thoughts on key higher education policy issues.
Congressman Kline is not confident that a full reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will happen in the coming months, and he also candidly shared that comprehensive legislation will delay until after the 2016 election unless a full bill can be resolved before the end of this year. Instead, it is likely that Congress will continue to offer temporary authorization for federal programs and provisions, including financial aid, until a full reauthorization bill is taken up. Although no specific bills were discussed during the event, Congressman Kline laid out a framework of targeted focus areas that legislators in both chambers will seek to address this year.
Innovation in educational delivery will be a critical focus area, where heavy attention will be given to incentivizing institutions to do more with competency-based education. During the past legislative session, for example, Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ) introduced the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act of 2014 (H.R. 3136). The legislation passed the House, but stalled in the Senate. If enacted, the bill would have directed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to select up to 30 institutions of higher education to carry out projects that demonstrate the opportunities and challenges associated with competency-based education. Because the current federal regulatory environment poses a challenge to delivering competency-based education in some instances, principally surrounding federal student aid eligibility, participating institutions would have been granted temporary waivers on a select set of related regulations and statues to allow for the pilot programs to operate during the trial period.
And an ongoing discussion is how the federal government can strike the delicate balance between autonomy and regulation in higher education. This past year, Senator Alexander, joined by several house and senate colleagues, formed the Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education. The task force, comprised of national leaders in higher education, was asked to devise a set of target areas and policy recommendations for the simplification of higher education regulation and to identify possible areas where deregulation might improve institutional performance. The task force’s recommendations are expected soon and may begin to signal the direction that legislation may take on this policy focus area.
Congressman Kline also expressed opposition to President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college, particularly the funding strategy that would require new revenue to be generated by modifying the federal tax code on capital gains. The funding strategy aside, however, the congressman stated that government-subsidized, tuition-free community college will not be part of the agenda this session.
The president’s tuition-free community college proposal is a call to address access and affordability for low- and middle-income Americans. Studies support the need to target policy interventions to support affordability for low- and middle-income students. For example, research has documented that affordability is a critical challenge that low- and middle-income students face when considering whether a college degree is attainable. Also, recent data signal that low income status is correlated with lower six-year completion rates when compared to high income students. To respond to the national crescendo of completion critique, one made by both sides of the congressional aisle, institutions will need policy actions that appropriately address the challenges of low- and middle-income students. But despite Congressman Kline’s opposition to the tuition-free community college proposal, it was unclear during his speech what policy actions he envisioned might address affordability – particularly for low- and middle-income Americans. As a follow-up during the Q&A, I asked Chairman Kline to comment on legislation that may have bi-partisan appeal and that would address affordability for low- and middle-income Americans (See 43:20 of the AEI event video for the response).
The congressman stated that restructuring educational delivery to drive down cost to the institution and, in turn, the student could offer a bi-partisan approach to address affordability. But tuition and fees represent only a portion of the total price to attend a college or university. The proportion varies by sector and residency-status, but recent data show that tuition only represents between one-third to one-half of the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board paid by in-state students who attend two- and four-year public institutions. This also does not account for the cost associated with textbooks, a computer, and other educational necessities that are required to prepare for today’s increasingly technology-centric, knowledge-based economy.
Further, approximately 9 in 10 public two-year college students from the lowest income quartile have unmet need that is equal to or greater than the average cost of tuition and fees at these institutions. This suggests that, even if tuition could be lowered through innovation, need from non-tuition educational expenses would still be unmet. And although the data show that high-income status students have unmet need as well, gaps in aid are substantially more sobering to low-income earners whose monthly budgets have far less flexibility, if any, to shift toward the cost of pursuing and attaining a degree. Family income data from the United States Census Bureau, for example, illustrate that the highest earners in the bottom fifth of income distribution brought in $28,894 annually before taxes in 2013. By contrast, the highest earners in the 4th quintile of income brought in $121,059 before taxes that same year.
To understand the challenge faced by many Americans who aspire to pursue and complete a degree, but whose financial need to do so is largely unmet, we need to compare income against cost of living. As an alternative to the outdated poverty-line measure, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has calculated the basic family budget to more accurately capture the expenses families incur for basic necessities each year. The calculation is based on a reasonable, but modest standard of living adjusted for family size and location – recognizing that the need for such a standard differs based, in large part, on these two key factors (check out EPI’s line-item basic family budget calculator). EPI’s 2013 study of the basic family budget of a two-parent, two-child household, for instance, demonstrated that the annual median basic family budget across all geographic areas was $63,236. For low-income households well under this modest standard of living, it’s difficult to imagine how, without additional support, these families can cover the education-related costs that are presently unmet through current average aid packages.
And, given that tuition is only a portion of the total cost to attend college, our elected leaders should critically examine whether a vision focused on driving down tuition is bold enough to support low- and middle-income students whose financial need demonstrably overshadows the potential savings through such an approach. When we examine the economic conditions that underlie low- and middle-income earners’ capabilities to meet the cost expectations placed upon them to attend college, it is clear that addressing tuition is inadequate if our elected leaders are serious about affordable access and – more importantly - completion.
Chairman Kline also shared that Congress could do more to build on the information that students have to make informed college-choice decisions, meaning that having better information could help students identify a less expensive institution. However, literature has already documented the salience of socioeconomic status in the college-choice decision-making process. For example, a recent study conducted by Alexandria Walton Radford illustrated that high-achieving, low socioeconomic status students were far less likely than high-achieving, high socioeconomic status students to both apply and matriculate to highly selective institutions. Access to information that will enable more informed college-choice decisions also fails to address the above-mentioned financial impediments that many low- and middle-income students face when considering where - and whether – to enroll. And without targeting policy action that reflects the true investment needed to enroll more low- and middle-income students, and to move these students to graduation, our nation’s capability to make progress on completion will be substantially impeded.