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President Lays Out Bold Agenda for Higher Education Reform

Sep 03, 2013

By Marcie Foster and Julie Strawn

Last week, President Obama presented an ambitious and sweeping plan for the reform of higher education as part of a national tour focused on college access and affordability. The plan targets three major areas of reform: paying colleges and students for performance, promoting innovation and competition, and ensuring student debt is affordable. CLASP applauds the President for setting a bold agenda for the country that aims to support innovation and make college more affordable for the millions of students-particularly low-income and underprepared students-who could benefit from postsecondary education and training.

Chief among the plan's recommendations is to establish a new rating system focused on identifying colleges that provide the best value for students and incentivizing colleges to place a priority on serving more low-income, disadvantaged students. While the Administration has taken steps in recent years to help students and parents make better college choices though projects such as the College Navigator and the College Scorecard, there is more work to be done to ensure that students and their families have the most relevant information to help them meet their college and career goals. This should include data on outcomes, such as completion rates, employment, earnings, and percentage who pursue advanced degrees. Ideally, the data should also be available at the program level rather than just by institution; institutional-level data often mask highly variable outcomes by program of study.

As this conversation continues, we hope the Administration will also consider efforts to strengthen the data systems from which such ratings would draw information. For instance, in addition to lacking data on employment and earnings outcomes, existing systems fail to measure the progress and completion of entire categories of students, such as part-time students, students who transfer between institutions, and students in noncredit occupational programs. More work should also be done to ensure that any legislation that would tie a college's ranking to student aid delivery through the Higher Education Act carefully considers the potential consequences on college access for low-income and underprepared students.

Core to the president's plan are proposals that seek to tackle the sources of rising college costs. A $1 billion Race to the Top (RTT) fund attempts to "reshape the federal-state partnership" and incentivize state-level innovation and funding. State funding has fallen dramatically in recent years and is just now experiencing a slight resurgence. Conditioning these federal grants on adequate state funding could help stem this disinvestment. RTT grants would provide an incentive to states to adopt policy reforms designed to reduce costs for students and families and to improve postsecondary completion rates.

The president's plan also supports the expansion of competency-based models, which allow students to get credit for learning based on the competencies that they can demonstrate, rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom. These models have the potential to reduce a student's time to a degree as well as college costs. While only a handful of institutions across the country have implemented such models, the Department has already opened up opportunities for more colleges to experiment with this model by clarifying how students in such programs can receive federal student aid currently available under the Higher Education Act. CLASP has called for a new currency of competency-based credentials  to improve transparency, trust, interoperability and value in the credential marketplace. In collaboration with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and support from the Lumina Foundation, we will also be engaged in a project to define competencies for certificate-level credentials.

CLASP's Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success will be conducting research and analysis in the coming months to expand the available knowledge base on these and other critical higher education issues. Topics under further exploration include making consumer data on employment and earnings widely available to parents and students to inform college decision-making, making student aid simpler and more transparent, improving the ability of the neediest students to receive sufficient student aid to meet the full cost of college, and examining institutional eligibility for higher education.

For more information on CLASP's recommendations to improve the availability of data and use of performance metrics in higher education, view Reforming Student Aid: How to Simplify Tax Aid and Use Performance Metrics to Improve College Choices and Completion>>

See CLASP's preliminary recommendations on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act>>

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