Just Do It!: Modernize the Higher Education Act
© Getty Images

The last time Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act was in 2008.  George W. Bush was president and Margaret Spellings was secretary of Education. 

The world has changed dramatically during this decade. Just over 1.3 million Americans were experimenting with Smart Phones then. Today, over 2.6 billion are in use.  Snapchat didn’t even exist. GPS was a printed Google map, not a piece of technology on your car or phone. TV Guide and Blockbuster were our foundations for video entertainment! 

ADVERTISEMENT

The world has changed. The role and need for education has changed dramatically.  Today, 65 percent of all jobs and 85 percent of all new jobs require some level of postsecondary education. In 2008, training programs were delivered by the Department of Labor.  Now, prospective workers seeking new skills depend on Federal Financial Aid offered by the Department of Education. 

And this has really changed the role – and impact – of federal financial aid. The 31.5 million student loan borrowers in 2008 has grown to 45 million representing 70 percent of all college students! The average debt/student has increased from $20,350 to $27,975 during this decade – a 37 percent increase.  The result?  There is over $1.4 trillion in national student loan debt. 

Today, college is not a luxury. It is an essential step towards one’s career and their professional success in life. As a result, our student population is much more diverse in age, race and ethnicity and gender. Yet the old 2008 Higher Education Act still calculates college outcomes based upon only first-time, full-time students transitioning from high school directly into college with no job; no spouse; and no dependents.

America is properly focused on a growing income equality creating one nation for the very rich (and their children); and one nation for the rest.  It has created both the Trump voter and the Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAlan Dershowitz: In defense of Chelsea Clinton O'Rourke: Decisions on late-term abortions 'best left to a woman and her doctor' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina MORE voters at opposite ends of the political spectrum.  The issue prompted a special series in The Washington Post where they invited 12 experts to share their recommendations for how we might reduce inequality in America.  Guess what?  Not one of the 12 suggested that access to postsecondary education was a solution.

The BLS Current Population Survey has released income data by level of education for 2017. The average Bachelor degree income was $60,996. An Associate Degree’s income was $43,472.  A high school diploma earned $37,024. 

Education outcomes are defining income inequality. Not everyone needs to graduate from a 4-year college because not every occupation requires that level of education.  But, if one compares the difference in annual earnings for an AA degree and a high school diploma you will note that over 40 years of work the AA degree earns $257,920 more.  And if you take this one step lower to the “College but no degree” which includes certificate and diploma programs, one can earn $128,960 more over 40 years of work than a high school graduate.  Reducing income inequality begins by recognizing that some level of postsecondary education is quickly becoming a necessity.

Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxGOP rep 'disappointed' by the number of Republican women in Congress The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi's challenge: Getting Dems back on same page The Hill's 12:30 Report: Cohen back on the hot seat MORE (R-N.C.), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has introduced a bold – if controversial – proposal for reauthorization titled “THE PROSPER ACT.” Most of the controversy in her bill reflects the fact she was required to craft a proposal with dramatically lower budget numbers than the recent two-year budget agreement provides.  Using the new budget numbers, one could quickly restore in-school interest subsidies and other provisions that result in some needed reforms in ways acceptable to most. She should be commended for modernization of the Act, including short-term Pell grants; Competencies; and Apprenticeships.  Such proposals recognize that today, the Higher Education Act is America’s workforce investment strategy.

Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderWhite House proposes limits on student loan borrowing as part of higher education reforms The 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Trump issues first veto, warning of 'reckless' resolution MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayWhite House proposes limits on student loan borrowing as part of higher education reforms Jury orders Johnson & Johnson to pay M to woman who claimed baby powder gave her cancer Overnight Health Care - Presented by Kidney Care Partners - FDA chief Scott Gottlieb resigns | House Dems to take up drug pricing bills next week | Planned Parenthood, doctors group sue over Trump abortion rule MORE (D-Wash.) (the chair and ranking member) of the Senate’s Education Committee have been engaged in talks about a possible bipartisan proposal.  Most observers suggest that current politics in Washington will prevent any agreement; effectively killing any chance for reauthorization this year. 

But it shouldn’t.  The economic and demographic realities of today demand that both political parties find a way to modernize a current Higher Education Act created in a different time, for a very different student body, and a very different economy.  

When I was a member of Congress, the incentive to enact a bipartisan Higher Education Act was incredible.  Every member could return to their state or district with a new program providing a bridge for every American family to the middle class. Today, higher education is more than a bridge; it is an essential requirement to real work, real wages and participation in the American Dream.  This is the year to modernize our nation’s higher education policy.  Let’s just do it!

Gunderson is a former 8-term U.S. Representative from Wisconsin and currently serves as President and CEO of the Career Education Colleges and Universities.